As one half of the most successful duo in country music history—the Louvin Brothers—Charlie Louvin began performing on the Grand Ole Opry in 1955; and, along side his brother Ira, quickly became a country music superstar. It had been a long, winding and often rocky road from their origins in musically fertile Sand Mountain, Alabama, where the brothers had gleaned their vocal style from close harmony duos such as the Delmore Brothers and the Blue Sky Boys as well as the local tradition of Sacred Harp (also known as Shape Note) gospel singing.
By the time they made their first recording in 1946, the Louvins’ style seemed almost old-fashioned. Many duos like the Blue Sky Boys, though still relatively young, were nearly retired. But the brothers were too fiercely determined and too talented to be held back. “Although they did not make the big time until the tail end of the (duet) tradition,” wrote Charles Wolfe in Close Harmony: The Story of the Louvin Brothers, “they were to take it to new heights and forge for it a permanent place in modern country music.”
Despite a fine run with MGM that produced unforgettable classics like “The Great Atomic Power,” it was at Capitol Records where the brothers’ creativity truly flourished. Their debut LP, 1956’s Tragic Songs of Life, nodded to the past with ancient murder ballads such as “Knoxville Girl” and “Katie Dear” but its use of electric guitars, drums and modern arrangements were firmly entrenched in the present. Encased in a murky, mysterious sleeve that drew the listener in before the first note was played, Tragic Songs was perhaps the first concept album, and led the way to the even more graphic My Baby’s Gone and Satan is Real, pioneering a practice that wouldn’t come into wide use for another 15 years.
Parting ways in 1963, Ira and Charlie pursued respective solo careers. In the summer of 1965, Ira was tragically killed in a head-on collision on the way back from a show in Missouri. Certainly a blow that could have broken a lesser man, Charlie soldiered on, scoring with “See the Big Man Cry,” and even establishing a Louvin Brothers Museum in 1969.
Always adored by country fans, the Louvins’ music has been continually rediscovered and championed by subsequent generations of rock fans, beginning with Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris and running clear through to Elvis Costello and Cake, who Charlie has toured and recorded with, respectively. [Louvin plays One Eyed Jacks April 4 with interview Michael Hurtt and his Haunted Hearts.—ED.]
Your latest albums, Charlie Louvin Sings Murder Ballads and Disaster Songs and Steps to Heaven hearken back to the Louvin Brothers days in their dueling subject matter. When you started out in 1941 with Ira, were you thinking that you were going to do both gospel and secular music?
No, we weren’t, Michael. Actually, we were a variety show. Fred Rose, probably the greatest human who ever lived, was trying to get us on Capitol. Capitol said, “Now, we’ve already got a country duet. But if they want to sing gospel music we’ll sign them.” Believe me, we needed a contract. So we cut straight gospel for four years. But then we wanted to do something else because the gospel people didn’t cotton to us.
Because you were a string band and these were the days of the gospel quartet?
Right. They referred to us as a carnival act because we played stringed instruments. They only used a piano back then. Martha Carson was one of the greatest female gospel singers that ever lived. But her husband, X. Cosse, wanted her to do something other than gospel. He figured if they dropped her neckline a little and sang something else, he could make a lot more money. So they propositioned Capitol and (producer) Ken Nelson told her: “If this doesn’t go and your (gospel) fans don’t like it and they drop you, you’ll be off the label.” And sure enough she was.
So when we started wanting to mix our music, he said, “You want to pull a Martha Carson.” No, it’s just that we’re kind of outcast here. We can’t play clubs because we shut the bar down. We just…we want to do this. “Well, if it don’t go, you know you’ll be off the label.” We said, OK, we have to take that gamble. So we recorded “When I Stop Dreaming.” And thank God it caught on. So from then on, we didn’t drop gospel. We did as many gospel albums as we did secular, but it put us in a different world.
Did you play in many churches?
We hardly ever played a church. We played a few and if the plate came back with very little money in it, the local preacher would say, “These guys could be out in a beer joint making great big money, but here they’re singing for the Lord and you didn’t even give them enough to fill their gas tank up. So I’m going to pass this one more time. I want to see some folding money in it.” And that’s just too close to begging for me. I’m glad that we finally got to do some secular music; it gives you a better chance to express yourself.
How would you go about writing your songs?
Ira was a born songwriter and I was the idea man. I’d hear somebody say something on the street or in a cafe and if I thought it sounded like a song title, I’d write it down, give it to Ira and ten minutes later he’d have a song. Did you ever hear our song “The Price of the Bottle?” That was a true song. In North Carolina, they’ve got state stores. I went in the store with Ira and he went to buy a bottle and got it, and got in line to pay for it. The guy in front of him was trying to give the cashier a check. Well, the guy didn’t want a check. Then he named his dad and that rang a bell with the cashier and he accepted his check. Well, you heard what happened the next morning.
He got in a car wreck.
That guy actually did have the wreck and Ira remembered his name. He had a wreck that killed his wife and kids on the way home. The song ended, “So I ask you friend, what is the price of the bottle?” So, there’s some truth in all of those songs. If you listen to the song you can almost hear the tires squeal.
Ira was very particular about his songs, right?
Right. Fred Rose, who corrected worlds of Hank Williams songs, wound say, “Ira, don’t you think if you said this instead of that..?” Ira would say, “Fred, if you don’t like it just say so, I’ll throw it away and write another one. But if you publish it, I want the way I wrote it.” He was hardcore on that. You couldn’t convince him that you could do something to his song and that it would sell more. He’d say, “I didn’t write it to sell.”
So consequently, the Louvin Brothers songs were recorded exactly as they were written, undiluted, so to speak.
That’s very true. And that’s what made them different. If someone would have slicked them up, they probably wouldn’t be alive today.
When I listen to the recitation in “Satan is Real,” I think Ira would have made a great preacher.
Ira got into the gospel songs almost like he was preaching. He could have been a preacher because he knew the book. Now knowing and doing, there’s a great gulf between the two. Just because you know something isn’t right doesn’t mean you’ll avoid it. But somebody wrote the other day, and I read it, that the Louvin Brothers music didn’t tell you how good it was going to be in heaven; it explained how bad it was gonna be in hell! That’s the way he put it, although I’d never thought of it that way. But it’s hard to believe in heaven and exclude hell.
Tell me about creating the album cover for Satan is Real.
My oldest boy had a Lionel train on a four-by-eight piece of plywood. We didn’t have the money to buy a new sheet of plywood, so we removed the train, split that plywood right down the middle and made a sixteen-foot booger man. Ira did the woodwork with the pitchfork and the horns, we painted it red, and we got a bunch of car tires and soaked them in kerosene and diesel fuel. When the time came, we lit the fires. After we got the fires going good it started sprinkling rain. The rocks laying around were a certain kind that blow up when they’re hot and water hits them. So when we were trying to take the picture, rocks the size of your fist were blowing up and flying eight and ten feet in the air. The photographer wanted to wait ’til later. We said, “There is no later. If we can stand out here with our instruments in the rain, certainly you should be able to take the picture!” So he did. As it’s turned out, it’s one of the most famous covers in any genre of music. It’s in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Ken Nelson, your producer at Capitol, is one of my favorites.
I think what made him famous was that he let the artist determine how the song should be done, whether it was Buck Owens, Faron Young, Jean Shephard or the Louvin Brothers. We pretty much knew what we wanted the song to sound like, and Ken would actually ask us, “What instrumentation do you want on this?” And Ken never pushed a song on us in the studio. He’d say, “What’s the first song?” we’d give him the title, we’d do the song, “What’s the next song?” He didn’t go through the songs and say, “We don’t want to record this” or “This isn’t a good enough song.” Now, he did bring a few, like Hazel Houser’s “My Baby’s Gone,” “River of Jordan” and “Praying.” And then the Smith Brothers wrote “Pitfall.” But all in all, he wouldn’t bring a song if he didn’t think you’d freak out over it.
There is a song on Steps to Heaven called “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” written by Thomas A. Dorsey.
That was written by a black minister whose wife was pregnant, and he had to go to St. Louis to preach a revival. The doctor told him, “You go ahead and do your revival. This child ain’t gonna come ’til at least two weeks after you get back.” So he went to St. Louis and when he was fixing to preach the first night, someone handed him a note that said, “We lost the mother but we saved the child.” On his way home, he wrote that song. I got to meet him in 1979. I said, “You thought seriously about just joining your wife, didn’t you, preacher?” “Oh no, I wouldn’t do that. I’m a man of the cloth.” I said, “Well, you wrote it in your song.” He said, “I did?” “Yeah, in the third verse where you said, ‘At the river I stand, guide my feet, hold my hand.’ What were you doing down by the river?” And he said, “I did think about it, but I didn’t do it.” I would have probably went ahead and did it. I would have went swimming.
Yet you’ve faced insurmountable tragedy in your life with the death of Ira. The fact that you’ve been able to go on like you have is heroic.
Well, it’s the only thing I knew how to do, Michael. So I thought, well, I’ll give it my best shot. Of course there’s still a few old people that come to see how I made it this long, but we’re playing to a world of young people. I think they might be the great, great grandchildren of the people that came to see the Louvin Brothers. They know what they like and if I can be a part of that, then I’m very lucky.
Published April 2009, OffBeat Louisiana Music & Culture Magazine, Volume 22, No. 4.