CHARLIE LOUVIN REDISCOVERED
By Paul Freeman
[What follows is our 2008 interview with the legendary Louvin, who passed on January 26, 2011, after a battle with cancer.]
At age 80, country music pioneer Charlie Louvin is enjoying a career revival. His singing voice remains extraordinarily expressive, as evidenced in live performances and on his new, self-titled CD.
Of the album, the jocular Louvin says, “Some of it is straight. Some of it is a little crooked. All in all, I think we’ve got a good product here.”
One of the record’s most touching moments comes on the song “Ira,” a tribute to his late brother. Together, in the ‘50s, the Louvin Brothers became a highly successful and influential harmonizing duo. They were inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2001.
“That song - ‘Ira - it’s a hard one for me to get through. We did it last night. We don’t do it on every show. It’s according to how the memories are running.”
When he sings, in his head, Louvin imagines Ira harmonizing with him. “I hear him even songs he didn’t sing on, that have that kind of opening for a good tenor singer, then I always hear it.”
The Alabaman brothers shared a sort of sibling musical ESP. “He knew when the lead was fixing to get too high for me and I knew it and we could switch in the middle. I would take the low harmony and he’d take the high lead. It was just a thing we started out doing when we were very young... and it worked.”
The brothers split in 1963, as Ira futilely battled alcoholism. Charlie Louvin recorded solo hits, including “I Don’t Love You Anymore” and “See The Big Man Cry.”
On his new CD, Louvin duets with greats of multiple generations, including George Jones, Jeff Tweedy, Bobby Bare, Bright Eyes and Elvis Costello, who sings on “When I Stop Dreaming.”
“Elvis Costello sung a verse and did a little harmony on the last chorus, which I afraid hurt him,” Louvin laughs. “It was on up there pretty good.”
On a 1955 tour, another Elvis - Presley - opened for the Louvin Brothers. “When Colonel Tom Parker bought Elvis’ contract, he had to have somebody to get the people in the auditorium. We was pretty doggone warm in 1955, artistically. Elvis was billed as “Also,” in print the size of the copyright. But that didn’t last long, not with the publicity the Colonel put behind him.
“Elvis came to New York on weekends and was on the Dorsey Brothers’ television show. They didn’t even use the name Presley. They just hung a glittering sign, as big as the backdrop on the stage, that just said, ‘Elvis.’ Those appearances turned him into a monstrous superstar. He was a good boy and a very large artist, no doubt about it.”
Parker changed the billing, making Elvis the headliner for the rest of the tour. “History’s recorded the rest,” Louvin chuckles.
Modern artists appreciate the Louvin history, which dates back half a century. “People still remember our music. All of it is still available in the record stores where they handle more than just the hits.”
Why has his music stood the test of time? Louvin says, “It all starts with the song. A good song doesn’t care who sings it. It’ll hit with anybody singing it. But you take a bad song, put a million dollar arrangement on it and it’s still a bad song.”
One of the Louvin Brothers recordings that’s best remembered is “Knoxville Girl.” “That’s an old English folk song, written in 1723. Somehow, it made its way across the water. It’s a really tragic story. People ask all the time, ‘Why would this rat do that to this girl?’ But if you listen to the third verse, where he took her by her golden curls, drug her ‘round and ‘round and threw her in the river, he says, ‘Go down, go down you Knoxville girl with the dark and roving eyes.’
“She had eyes for somebody else and he couldn’t stand it. We still have those idiots right here in the States who believe, ‘If I can’t have you, nobody will.’“
Though peers cherish the Louvin body of work, country radio seems to have forgotten its own roots. “It’s very distasteful, some of the stuff that they’re calling ‘country’ today. You listen to a station that calls itself ‘rock’ for an hour, then turn over to the number one so-called ‘country music’ station in town and you’ll hear the same damn songs. But eventually, it’s going to evolve back to classic country.”
Louvin says the authenticity of traditional country can’t be denied. “Country music is life. There’s no fantasy, no frills. With most country music, it’s a story of something that happened to somebody. And anything that happens to one person has already happened to others before. That’s the hold that country music has on its fans.”
With airplay on NPR and college gigs, Louvin is making new fans. He finds an upside to aging. “The shorter time gets, the more you appreciate time. You know the old story - you never miss your water ‘til the well runs dry. That’s very true. You never miss your youth, until it’s gone.
“Being 80 doesn’t bother me, as long as I’m healthy and can get out there and perform. Now that I’ve been given this chance, I’m going to hang in there with it as long as I can.”