Critics were spouting superlatives and predicting great things for Livin’, Lovin’, Losin: Songs of the Louvin Brothers weeks before the album hit record stores last Sept. 30. And they were right. After the album appeared on an array of best-of-the-year lists (including those of all four CMT.com scribes), it snagged two Grammy nominations and earlier this month won both of them — best country album and best country collaboration with vocals (for the James Taylor/Alison Krauss duet, “How’s the World Treating You”).
Sales of the Universal South album are still minuscule by industry standards — just over 50,000 copies. But the week following the Grammy win, sales jumped 68.6 percent over those of the previous week. The album’s potential for copping Academy of Country Music and Country Music Association honors this year will keep a spotlight on it for months to come.
Livin’, Lovin’, Losin’ owes its existence to the passion, persuasiveness and organizational skills of producer Carl Jackson, a lifelong fan of Ira and Charlie Louvin’s heart-melting songs and celestial vocal harmonies. (To get Merle Haggard on the project, Jackson lugged recording equipment all the way to a Holiday Inn Express in Mississippi.) This is Jackson’s second Grammy. In 1991, he split the best bluegrass album prize with John Starling for Spring Training.
The Louvins graced the country charts only briefly — from 1955 through 1962 — but they used that time to create such vocal classics as “When I Stop Dreaming,” “I Don’t Believe You’ve Met My Baby,” “You’re Running Wild,” “My Baby’s Gone” and “Must You Throw Dirt In My Face.” All these songs, plus 10 others, are covered reverentially in the new album by a cast that includes, besides Taylor and Krauss, Joe Nichols, Rhonda Vincent, Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell, Vince Gill, Terri Clark, Merle Haggard, Ronnie Dunn, Rebecca Lynn Howard, Glen Campbell, Leslie Satcher, Kathy Louvin, Pamela Brown Hayes, Linda Ronstadt, Patty Loveless, Jon Randall, Harley Allen, Dierks Bentley, Larry Cordle, Jerry Salley, Dolly Parton, Sonya Isaacs, Marty Stuart, Del McCoury, Pam Tillis, Johnny Cash, the Jordanaires and Jackson himself.
The Louvins separated in the early ’60s to pursue individual music careers, but Ira died in a car crash in 1965, leaving behind only one solo hit. Charlie exerted a strong presence throughout the 1960s and ’70s and continues to perform as a member of the Grand Ole Opry. But not enough, he complains. More of this later.
“I fought really hard to be on that project,” newcomer Dierks Bentley told CMT.com last year. He sings “I Don’t Believe You’ve Met My Baby” with songwriter Harley Allen. “I don’t know whether Universal South wanted me on there at first or not,” Bentley continued, “but Carl Jackson is a friend of mine. I used to sing a lot of [Louvin Brothers] stuff with my cousin, who’s a banjo player. … I was saying to someone the other day that I’m more excited about that project than my own record.”
For Dunn, it began as a favor to a friend but evolved into something more. Dunn duets on “If I Could Only Win Your Love” with Howard. “I was brought in at the last moment,” he explained in an earlier interview. “That cut was supposed to be for Alan Jackson, but they said he had trouble meeting the schedule. So Tim [DuBois, senior partner at Universal South] called me in the middle of the night. It was 7 o’clock, and I was supposed to leave at 10 to go out on tour. He said, ’You’ve gotta come over here and help me with this.’ We hadn’t been able to talk to anyone at my label, so finally I said, ’Hey, I’ll do it, but there’s no guarantee. I haven’t heard the track, I don’t really know the song.’ … I flew over to the studio, and they were finishing up the guitar parts on the track. I said, ’Well, I’ll give it a shot.’ Luckily we were able to get a vocal on it.”
In spite of the haste, Dunn was happy with the way his track turned out. “Just like any neurotic artist,” he said, “I wish I could have been there [longer]. It’s never quite finished. You never want to walk away, but yeah, I’m really proud to be a part of it though. There are some really great singers on there, and that was my plea to Joe [Galante, his boss at RCA Label Group]. I said, ’Please, for that alone, just to be on there with some of those singers, let me do it.’ And he was kind enough to do it.”
Charlie Louvin was also a latecomer. “I didn’t even know about [the album] until it was almost finished,” he says. “They kept a good secret there. But I got to sit in on the James Taylor/Alison Krauss session.” He says he wasn’t even aware at first that Jackson was such a big Louvin Brothers fan. “But,” he adds, “it makes me happy.”
Louvin also appreciates Jackson’s touch as a producer. “I wish that my brother and I would’ve had a conscientious producer in our day. There’s no telling what we could have done. … Ken [Nelson, the Louvins’ producer] was a ’Let’s get it done’ type of guy. If you made an obvious mistake, the only way you could stop the tape would be just to [rear] back and say a big cuss word. If you didn’t say a cuss word and you got through with a song and said, ’We need to go back and do this [again, because] we said this or we didn’t say that,’ he’d look at the engineer and say, ’Did that bother you?’ And the engineer would say, ’No.’ So he’d say, ’OK, what’s the next song?'”
This is the second time that a younger generation has stirred widespread interest in the Louvins’ music. Harris drew attention to their style and repertoire in the mid-1970s, beginning in 1975 with her Top 5 recording of “If I Could Only Win Your Love.” She would go on to record other Louvin songs and speak publicly about the brothers’ importance and influence.
Louvin says the tribute album has raised his visibility and bookings everywhere except at his main performance venue — the Grand Ole Opry. “It hasn’t had any effect on my standing at the Opry,” he complains. “I tell you, it’s just bad there. I get one song every other week. The name Louvin has had more publicity in the last six months than every other Opry artist put together. I did the [Cake and Cheap Trick] rock ’n’ roll tour [last year] and got a world of publicity out of it. But [at the Opry it’s a case of] ’Don’t confuse us with facts. Our mind is made up.'”
The always-busy Jackson has just completed an album for Rounder Records on bluegrass singer Alecia Nugent. And he says he’s working on a couple of other big projects he can’t talk about yet. If they’re like the Louvins’ tribute, they’ll do their own talking.