Charlie Louvin Obituary
Written by Tom Wilmeth
Wednesday, 26 January 2011
Well foot. I’ve been trying to break away from writing obituaries and convince some folks that I can deal with the world of the living. But here’s one I can’t let go by. It may sound harsh, but Charlie Louvin was the lesser half of The Louvin Brothers, a close harmony duo that you have probably never heard of unless you study country music or are at least 60 years old. And even then, it would help greatly if you were from the South.
Together, Charlie and Ira Louvin are without question the finest harmony singers Country Music has ever produced. I love the Delmores, the Stanleys, the Blue Sky Boys, the Carter Family, and many others. But for perfection of harmony nobody can touch The Louvin Brothers. They stand toe-to-toe with The Everly Brothers, who influenced the rock and pop world, beginning in importance with John & Paul. The Louvin Brothers impact, however, stopped at the country music border.
Perhaps two primary differences between these brother acts will help distinguish their place in American music. The Louvin Brothers emerged from a childhood rich with Southern Shape Note Singing, a choral effort which adds an unmistakably rigid element to the sound. The Everly Brothers had no such influence in their background. In fact, when I spoke with Don Everly some years ago, he had never heard of Shape Note Singing. Everly was also quick to correct a very common misnomer of influence. Because of the edge to much of the Louvins’ vocals and the absolute perfection of their harmonies, many view the Everlys’ smoother sound as a natural extension of the Louvins and see Ira & Charlie as key musical role models for the younger brothers. But Don insisted that this sort of direct-line approach was absolutely wrong. He told me that he and Phil really respected what the Louvins were doing, but that the Everlys already had their harmony sound solidly in place before they came to Nashville.
The other main difference between the groups is found in the content of the songs. Unlike Everly Brothers’ tales of teenage heartache, many of The Louvin Brothers’ greatest songs are original gospel numbers, penned primarily by Ira Louvin. “Just Rehearsing,” “Weapon of Prayer,” “Satan Lied to Me,” “The Great Atomic Power” – These songs merely touch the hem of the garment of Ira’s deep catalogue and remarkable talent as a songwriter. Porter Wagoner once observed, “Ira could write out the lyrics to a new song the way other people would write out a grocery list.”
The Louvin Brothers would finally cross over to the country charts in 1955 with Ira’s secular “When I Stop Dreaming,” but this was only after Capitol Records grudgingly let them try one (and only one) non-gospel number. Fortunately, it was a big hit, which then convinced Capitol to let them record what they pleased. This success also got the brothers an invitation to join the Grand Ol’ Opry, where they were well received and where Charlie Louvin had been performing regularly until his death this week from cancer, at age 83. Charlie had worked the Opry as a single for quite a long time – the brothers dissolved the act in 1963, and Ira died in a car accident two years later.
Let there be no doubt, Charlie had once been the solid lead vocal line to Ira’s aching tenor -- the anchor and an integral part of the harmony. But the man’s singing voice had been absolutely shot for decades. This may have had something to do with the chain smoking I witnessed over three days in 1995. But I can’t be sure. Charlie Louvin was not a difficult interview, but he seemed pretty unhappy that people always wanted to talk about The Louvin Brothers and not his solo career. “I’ve sold more records by myself than The Louvin Brothers ever did,” he insisted – not with pride but with irritation. That is a believable statistic, since the brothers had an important but relatively short career. Their last Top 10 Billboard Country Chart hit was in 1958.
Brother Ira’s volatile temperament never helped the group, nor did his ever increasing alcoholism. But Charlie was protective of his brother’s image to the end, demonstrating pride and frustration by turns during our conversations. “Ira could do a recitation as good as Hank Williams,” he told me. Big talk, but it was true. Of the 14 recitations Ira recorded, most are on the level of Luke the Drifter – the gold standard for country recitations.
When I left Charlie at his home in Bell Buckle, Tennessee that day in 1995 he was copying cassettes of Louvin Brothers songs to send out to various performers. He hoped to generate fresh recording interest in the back catalogue before his copyrights expired. He was simultaneously handing me several new solo CDs he had made for various small labels, such as Watermelon. Charlie was looking forward to recording a song about tour buses called “Silver Eagle,” thinking this one might get him back on the radio.
Before I left, I asked him about country peers and newcomers. “I know what goes into being a country artist,” he assured me. “I know who can make it and who can’t. And I know why!” He had the greatest respect for George Strait because he had a “man’s haircut” and Dwight Yoakam because Dwight had paid for a huge number of roses to decorate the entire Opry interior for Minnie Pearl when she was ailing. When I asked him for favorite songs by either performer, an embarrassing silence followed. But he knew that they were both the real deal. I thought he might be more comfortable in the past -- he told me Jim Reeves had the best voice in country music. He hated Webb Pierce and loved Ernest Tubb. “People in Nashville were just waiting for Webb Pierce to fail. But if anybody could help Ernest in any way, they’d do it!” He wondered how Bill Monroe could live with himself, and when I asked about Hank Snow, Charlie only smiled and laughed. Finally, Louvin didn’t see how anybody could consider Jimmie Rodgers to be the Father of Country Music, as he became surprisingly angry about Rodgers’ reputation. “Look here, now – he had a trumpet on one of his records. That ain’t country!”
Money was a recurring topic. Charlie Louvin clearly felt he had not received his share. “If we could have gotten Elvis Presley to record just one of our songs . . .” It was clear that Charlie firmly believed that he would now be on permanent easy street from royalty income. But Elvis never did, in spite of his reportedly high regard for the duo and the fact that they were the favorite gospel group of Elvis’ mother. Of course, it may not have helped when Ira went off on Presley at an early gig during a package tour. The infamous story summarized: Elvis was playing gospel music on a backstage piano between shows; Ira took exception, calling him a “white nigger.” I asked Charlie his thoughts on Elvis. “Very professional; night-in and night-out,” he said thoughtfully. “I had no problem with Elvis or his act; but Ira was having none of it.” Charlie then sort of snapped back to attention, as if he had forgotten something. “But we were headlining that tour. Make no mistake! Elvis was opening for us!”
Since he was trying to get newer artists to record his and Ira’s songs, I thought Charlie might have done well financially with The Byrds’ 1968 recording of The Louvin Brothers original “The Christian Life.” There was an awkward silence, and I then hesitantly asked if he had liked the Sweetheart of the Rodeo album. Charlie took a long drag on his cigarette and just stared at me. I tried again – any thoughts on Gram Parsons, and how he had been partly responsible for bringing a younger audience to country music? Another long pause and another long drag. And then, very deliberately, he said, “I have never understood how one man can be sexually attracted to another man. I just can’t understand it!” I was dumbstruck. And this time it was I who was silent.
Charlie Louvin talked with me for three days in 1995 because he thought I could help promote him as a solo artist – he encouraged me to do a separate book about his solo career when I finished with my Louvin Brothers project. And maybe I should have; but I didn’t. I spoke with Charlie out of a deep love for his music with Ira, but also because I thought writing about him could help my reputation and potential career as a writer. I guess we both came up short, but that’s OK. Charlie Louvin did just fine – although he had no further chart action, he remained a respected elder statesman of Country Music, even being inducted with his brother into the Country Music Hall of Fame a few years after our visit. I too was very fortunate – none of my writings about The Louvin Brothers got much attention, but my interaction with Charlie Louvin opened my eyes to fascinating sides of the music business I never knew existed.
Tom Wilmeth 1,552 words
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Tom Wilmeth wrote the liner notes to the Grammy winning CD Songs of The Louvin Brothers, a various artists tribute CD including one of the very last recordings made by Johnny Cash.
Wilmeth has also published the book The Music of The Louvin Brothers: Heaven’s Own Harmony.
He will probably post it all on his blog one of these days when he gets around to it.
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Addenda – Letter to a Friend, who wondered about the Bill Monroe and Gram Parsons references in the Charlie Louvin obituary
So -- Bill Monroe, the acknowledged Father of Bluegrass -- he took the sound from String Band to Bluegrass. And that a large difference. Charlie Louvin was down on Bill Monroe for not taking care of his own brother, Charlie Monroe, who lived in the area but was doing poorly economically and health-wise. Bill and Charlie Monroe had once been an act as the Monroe Brothers, then Bill made it big on his own -- I think Charlie was in the military at this point. Anyway, Bill became huge (but was still very much eclipsed for decades by his own former sidemen Flatt & Scruggs) while brother Charlie Monroe couldn't get a gig. That's a simplified version -- but you get the idea.
How did I get into country music? Well, I was never truly opposed to it, but had almost no time for it EXCEPT for Hank Williams, who I felt was the Alpha and Omega -- I discovered him in the late Cedar Falls days. When I got to Texas, my new friends said, Yeah Tom, Hank is the man. But how about checking-out some of this other stuff? And so I was introduced to country old and new, such as -- Dwight Yoakam, George Strait (then new) and Louvin Brothers and Bill Monroe (old).
Gram Pasons -- not gay. I almost left that exchange out of there, but the reason I left it in -- Because every time I relate that story to someone who knows about Parsons, they are stunned that Charlie Louvin thought that -- cuz Parsons was NOT gay. As I say, judgment call. And I started to explain it in the obit, but it took the focus off of the dead Louvin.
Hope this helps -- I'll say it again: you are now only one of two to ask me for clarification on these points. Nobody ripping on me, so that's good.
Hey -- better run. Stay in touch and thanks for reading this stuff.