january 2011

Charlie Louvin: Examining the human toll of war

The Weapon Of Song

Charlie Louvin considers war’s toll

By David McGee

Charlie Louvin
True North Records
Released: November 2010

As a Korean War veteran, Charlie Louvin knows about one form of battle; now afflicted with pancreatic cancer, he knows about another form of battle and is right in the middle of it. Battles of a military and personal nature both inform his moving new CD, released this past November, and the subtext of its songs and of Louvin’s life is heroism born of extreme circumstances. The soldiers Louvin sings of in this collection of songs from the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s are the Greatest Generation warriors celebrated in Tom Brokaw’s books and in those Steven Spielberg/Tom Hanks collaborations for HBO and the big screen. In Tom T. Hall’s “What We’re Fighting For” (a 1965 hit for Dave Dudley), a soldier writes home asking his mother to educate Vietnam War protesters as to the threats to democracy the U.S. has vanquished in other wars preceding our southeast Asian incursion, as if the North Vietnamese posed a danger to the world on a par with Hitler’s Nazis and Emperor Hirohito’s (or Emperor Showa as he is now referred to in his native land) Japanese army. Even Merle Haggard’s Vietnam War-era protagonist in “I Wonder If They Ever Think Of Me” displays the grit of a front-line infantryman on the march with Patton rather than a Platoon character’s skeptical view of the whole enterprise as he mulls his fate as a prisoner of war. No, Louvin’s soldiers are unquestioning patriots on the march against evil, clear-headed about their mission, and secure in their possession of the ultimate weapon—not the nuclear type but the one Charlie and his late brother Ira wrote of in their WWII epic of 1951, “Weapon of Prayer,” to wit: While the boys so bravely stand with the weapons made by hand/Let us trust and use the weapon of prayer/And when the planes and tanks and guns have done all that they can do/And the mighty bombs have rained and failed/Still the helpful hand above, on the weapon made of love/And against him none on earth prevail.

Charlie Louvin, ‘Weapon of Prayer,’ featuring Del McCoury, from The Battle Rages On

Del McCoury adds his keening voice to the somber version of “Weapon of Prayer” offered on The Battle Rages On, and the sturdiness of his reading has the effect of sounding a resolute stance in contrast to Charlie’s vocal, which has a weariness born of his own advanced age but which allows it to assume the voice of the fighting man under siege and needing the strength McCoury’s character offers. Subtitled “Songs of War and Reflection,” The Battle Rages On focuses less on war than on reflections of the war experience, hence the source of its emotional heft. Opening on a sprightly note with “Smoke On the Water”—not the Deep Purple song but the rousing WWII number penned by Zeke Clements and Earl Nunn, recorded by Red Foley and Bob Wills but best remembered for the intense treatments of it given by Roy Acuff from the Grand Ole Opry stage—Louvin updates the song to take a humorous poke at Osama bin Laden (supplanting the 1943 lyric’s references to Hitler, Hirohito and Mussolini altogether) in sentiments we can surely get behind (“Oh bin Laden along with Hitler/he’ll be riding on a rail/and Hussein will beg for mercy/as a leader he has failed”) and sings of American air power turning Iran into “a graveyard.” Well, it was Japan in the 1943 lyric, and we’re not fighting, yet, in Iran, but the point is made.

Charlie Louvin, ‘Smoke On the Water,’ from The Battle Rages On

Roy Acuff and his Smoky Mountain Boys, ‘Smoke On The Water,’ from the 1943 Republic film, O, My Darling Clementine. The band is: Jess Easterday, mandolin; Rachel Veach, banjo; Lonnie ‘Pap’ Wilson, guitar; Jimmie Riddle, harmonica, accordion; Beecher Kirby (aka Bashful Brother Oswald), dobro; Velma Williams: bass.

But the greater part of Louvin’s purpose here is to examine the human toll of war, much as he and his brother did on their 1962 The Weapon of Prayer album (five of the 12 songs on The Battle Rages On also appear on The Weapon of Prayer, in fact). To this end, sons and mothers figure prominently into the album’s narrative. “Robe of White,” “A Soldier’s Last Letter” (by Redd Stewart and Ernest Tubb) and “Just Before the Battle Mother” (penned by George F. Root, the song was popular with Union soldiers in the Civil War) are all centered on mothers hearing of their sons’ deaths on the battlefield (or in the case of the latter tune, impending death); again, it’s Louvin’s aged voice, which is not always right on the note, that articulates the loss of one’s own flesh, blood and bone with greater depth of feeling than a younger singer might muster. On a rare up note, the Louvin Brothers’ “Mother I Thank You For the Bible” (sometimes listed as “Mother I Thank You For The Bible You Gave”), another song from the Weapon of Prayer album, finds a fighting son writing home to say thanks to his mother for the Good Book she packed for him—not only does he find strength in reading it every day, but its thickness saved him from an enemy bullet, he reveals. At the end, the graceful, easygoing treatment of “Down by the Riverside,” with its “ain’t a-gonna study war no more” refrain and laid-back shuffle, is cathartic; even Charlie sounds like he’s got the monkey off his back, singing with a lightness and warmth he hasn’t been able to convey in the other, darker material. Throughout this endeavor, producer Mitchell Brown surrounds Charlie with a tight, efficient acoustic ensemble of guitar, bass, fiddle, mandolin and snare; the musicians—especially Deanie Richardson and David Russell doubling on fiddle and mandolin—make their marks with to-the-point soloing and understated, empathetic support for Louvin’s storytelling. This is some good Charlie Louvin here—he wins this battle, and here’s hoping he can prevail in his more personal one as well.

Charlie Louvin’s The Battle Rages On is available at www.amazon.com

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (www.johnmendelsohn.com)
Website Design: Kieran McGee (www.kieranmcgee.com)
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY; www.flickr.com/audreyharrod), Alicia Zappier (New York)
E-mail: thebluegrassspecial@gmail.com
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024