Remembering Charlie Louvin
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The note Lucinda Williams sent when I asked Wednesday for her reflections about Louvin Brothers singer Charlie Louvin, on getting word of his death at age 83 from pancreatic cancer, was exceptionally touching, and warm and funny.
I quoted just part of it in the obituary I wrote for Thursday’s paper, but the whole thing is worth sharing:
‘I got word of Charlie Louvin’s passing today, which is also my birthday. Losing Charlie means that we have lost one of the last of the founding fathers of honest-to-god country music. Charlie was a legend as one half of the Louvin Brothers and left a deep impression on me. I had the honor of working with him in the studio and touring with him.
‘Every show would end with the two of us trading out verses on his song, ‘When I Stop Dreaming’ followed by my song ‘Get Right With God,’’ Williams wrote in her e-mail, ‘Charlie loved that song and he loved to dance and as the band rocked out, he would grab my arms and spin me around.
‘One time we were performing in Kansas City outdoors and it was very windy that evening. Charlie’s set list kept blowing away. At one point, he’d finally had enough and he grabbed his pocket knife and planted that thing right through the set list into the stage floor to keep it from blowing away. Later, that same night, after the show, we sat on the bus and, with sadness in his eyes, he told us that, on the way to Kansas City, we had driven right by the milepost where his brother, Ira, had been killed in a car wreck.
‘Charlie was eternally youthful, full of spitfire, vim and vigor and, like Hank Williams, was a true punk, in the best sense of the word. We will miss Charlie but like he said, shortly before he left us, ‘I’m ready to go home.’’
That was pretty typical of the reactions I got from everyone I spoke to or heard from by e-mail on Wednesday while working on the story: Dolly Parton, Garth Brooks, Emmylou Harris, Byrds-Flying Burrito Brothers–Desert Rose Band founding member Chris Hillman, Phil Everly, Vince Gill and Marty Stuart.
Gill, who I caught up with in Texas, where he was starting a run of four concerts, spoke eloquently about the magic in the harmonizing Charlie and Ira did, which grew out of the Deep South tradition of sacred harp music and ‘shape-note’ singing.
‘You can’t find anybody, I don’t think, that was not inspired by them,’ he said. ‘They are the kingpins of that family harmony, and there were so many of them: the Osborne Brothers, the Bales Brothers, the Monroe Brothers, the Wilburn Brothers, the Everlys and on and on and on.
‘I was always drawn to that sound of blood,’ he said. ‘What I spent my whole life trying to be was the blood of whoever I was singing with. Rodney [Crowell] was one of those for me, I sang so much with him when I was young. Buck Owens and Don Rich were the closest two guys that weren’t related that sounded related. I’ve always been completely undone by the seamlessness of what blood did in music.’
Harris said something similar when she talked about the Louvins to the British news weekly the Observer last year: ‘I’d always loved the Everly Brothers, but there was something scary and washed in the blood about the sound of the Louvin Brothers.’
Stuart said their music, steeped in the old-time murder ballads and apocalyptic stories of the choice between spiritual damnation or salvation that are characteristic of Appalachian music, was simply part of the ether when he was a kid. Their take-no-prisoners attitude about their religious beliefs came through on the extraordinary cover shot of their album ‘Satan Is Real,’ showing them in front of a cardboard cutout of a giant figure of the devil.
‘Growing up in the South,’ Stuart told me from a New Jersey airport, where he was about to depart for a tour of Europe, ‘the Louvin Brothers were part of the atmosphere; like the scent of magnolias, they were part of the breeze.’
Hillman recalled the twist of fate that introduced him to the Louvins’ music, music that would stay with him throughout his long and distinguished career.
‘My mother bought a Louvin Brothers album some place in 1960 because it had a picture of Ira playing a mandolin, and she knew I was learning the mandolin. I was a sophomore in high school in Del Mar, Calif. I put the record on the turntable, and oh my God. It was [their 1956] ‘Tragic Songs of Life’ album, all the old songs with just the two of them. I loved it, I loved the mandolin playing. And that was it, I was swept away.
“After high school, my interest was reignited when I started working with Vern Gosdin and brother Rex. Their uncle Rebe had written ‘Don’t Laugh’ that the Louvins recorded, so here I am, 18-years-old playing Louvin Brothers with those harmonies to die for. The Byrds taught me ‘Kentucky Song,’ which the Louvins used to do. Didn’t think much about them for a while, until ‘Sweetheart of the Rodeo’ album, and Gram [Parsons] reignited that love for them; that’s when we started doing ‘The Christian Life.’ They were always in my life from time I was 16, when they came in totally by accident.
‘But it was supposed to be. They were divinely placed in my lap,’ Hillman said. ‘I owe them both for shaping my whole journey.’
-- Randy Lewis