NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Sweet Harmonies for the Ages

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/ Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

In thinking about the best albums of 2003, one new entry seems guaranteed to be near or at the top of the list. Livin’, Lovin’, Losin’: Songs of the Louvin Brothers (Universal South) opens a new window on an extraordinary era of country music that was exemplified by one of the greatest harmony duos ever.

The brothers Charlie and Ira Louvin were already throwbacks to country music’s earlier days when they began recording in the 1940s. Born Ira and Charlie Loudermilk in rural Alabama, they evolved as staunch musical traditionalists and champions of fundamental themes. Ira’s high, pure tenor has never been equaled, and the combination of his pristine vocals coupled with Charlie’s tenor melody singing was simply unmatchable. They were fiercely religious — their song “Satan Is Real” evolved into the subsequent Satan Is Real album with a vivid cover featuring a dancing Satan surrounded by flames — and their early contract with Capitol Records limited them to recording only sacred songs. They were unafraid to plunge headlong into the metaphysical aspects of bluegrass gospel. Tradition says that they pleaded with Capitol to record one secular song, and Capitol allowed that — with the proviso that it must become a commercial hit. The brothers responded with the spectacular “When I Stop Dreaming,” which became a No. 4 hit in 1955 and opened the door to the No. 1 song “I Don’t Believe You’ve Met My Baby” and other such chart hits as “Cash on the Barrelhead” and “How’s the World Treating You.”

Despite a checkered career shortened by the advent of rock ‘n’ roll in the late 1950s and by Ira’s tortured private life, the Louvins amassed a remarkable body of songs and recordings that continues to wield considerable influence. Personal differences between the brothers — mainly exacerbated by Ira’s drinking — resulted in the duo disbanding in 1963. Their final radio hit was “Must You Throw Dirt in My Face.” Ira, who was shot three times in the back by his third wife, recovered but then went on to die in a fiery, head-on car crash along with his fourth wife in 1965 at the age of 41. Charlie continues with a solo recording and touring career, which included his recent stint opening for Cake on their Unlimited Sunshine Tour.

The Louvins were discovered for the rock world by the late Gram Parsons, who was no less metaphysical in his single-minded and equally spiritual approach to music. Parsons covered the Brothers’ “Cash on the Barrelhead” and put their “The Christian Life” on the Byrds’ seminal country rock album Sweetheart of the Rodeo. After dueting with Parsons on Louvin songs, Emmylou Harris re-introduced the country music world to Louvin music when her 1975 cover of “If I Could Only Win Your Love” became her first Top 10 hit.

That song is reprised here in an unlikely but ultimately stunning duet by Ronnie Dunn and Rebecca Lynn Howard. The artist lineup on this project represents one of the strongest in recent years on a single country disc: other performers include Johnny Cash, Joe Nichols, Rhonda Vincent, Rodney Crowell, James Taylor, Alison Krauss, Vince Gill, Terri Clark, Merle Haggard, Glen Campbell, Linda Ronstadt, Patty Loveless, Dierks Bentley, Dolly Parton, Marty Stuart, Del McCoury, Pam Tillis and Harris. Producer Carl Jackson has done a remarkable job in the pairings of the famous and not so famous in some imaginative but true-to-form arrangements of some of the greatest songs in country music history.

James Taylor turns in a performance for the ages in his moving duet with Krauss on “How’s the World Treating You,” a song which was actually written by Chet Atkins and Boudleaux Bryant but which was completely taken over by the Louvins’ harmony version.

Other sterling duets abound here. Haggard and Jackson join for a mournful reprise of “Must You Throw Dirt in My Face.” Gill and Clark romp through a challenging shuffle version of “I Can’t Keep You in Love With Me.” Nichols and Vincent emerge as sensual soul partners in an evocative “Cash on the Barrelhead.” Campbell and soulful songwriter Leslie Satcher capture the essence of the ethereal “When I Stop Dreaming.”

Cash makes one of his last recorded appearances on the album’s closing “Keep Your Eyes on Jesus,” stepping in for Ira Louvin’s traditional spoken word recitation on this Louvin classic, sung by Tillis with background vocals by the Jordanaires, who sang on the original Louvin version. Cash’s Biblical tones add a solemn tone of finality in admonishing, “We must keep our eyes on him and not the pleasures of this world.”

Timeless themes and subjects told in captivating stories presented melodically: that’s the best job description I can think of for great country music. It’s worked in the past, it’s working now, and I see no reason why it can’t work forever.