Charlie Louvin, a Country Music Hall of Fame member as one-half of the Louvin Brothers, died early Wednesday morning (Jan. 26) after a battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 83. He received the cancer diagnosis in July.
Louvin got his start as the younger half of the sweet-singing Louvin Brothers, a duo influenced by such earlier sibling acts as the Monroe Brothers, the Delmore Brothers and the Blue Sky Boys. In turn, the Louvins helped pave the way for the Everly Brothers and influenced a wide variety of artists, including Emmylou Harris and the late Gram Parsons.
Charlie Elzer Loudermilk was born on July 7, 1927 in Section, Ala. three years after the birth of his brother and eventual singing partner, Ira Lonnie Loudermilk. (They changed their last name to Louvin in 1947.)
With Ira on mandolin and Charlie on guitar, the brothers were singing together as the Radio Twins as early as 1942. Their musical trajectory was twice interrupted by Charlie’s military service, first in the declining months of World War II and then in the thick of the Korean War.
Between and after these career detours, the Louvins sang at radio stations in Chattanooga, Knoxville and Memphis, Tenn., and Birmingham, Ala. Early on, most of their repertoire was gospel songs, and they performed regularly at churches. But finding it impossible to support themselves on church offerings, they turned increasingly to secular music.
Prior to striking it big on Capitol Records in the mid 1950s, the Louvins recorded briefly for Apollo, Decca and MGM but charted on none of these labels.
Even so, they had achieved enough prominence by 1955 that they were invited to join the Grand Ole Opry. Later that same year, they had their first Billboard chart record with their self-penned “When I Stop Dreaming.” The song peaked at No. 8.
The next year, the Louvin Brothers scored their only No. 1, “I Don’t Believe You’ve Met My Baby.” At the height of their fame, just before the wave of rock ‘n’ roll inundated country music, the Louvins counted Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash among their opening acts.
Between 1956 and 1963 — when the Louvins split up over Ira’s drinking and disruptive behavior — the brothers charted 10 more singles, including the Top 10s “Hoping That You’re Hoping,” “You’re Running Wild,” “Cash on the Barrel Head” and “My Baby’s Gone.”
Following their breakup, each brother pursued a solo career. However, Ira charted only one single — “Yodel, Sweet Molly” — before he and his wife were killed in a car wreck in 1965.
Charlie Louvin continued to appear on the Grand Ole Opry and charted singles at least once a year from 1964 through 1974 (and intermittently thereafter). His biggest hits were “I Don’t Love You Anymore” (No. 4, 1964) and “See the Big Man Cry” (No. 7, 1965).
The rock world took notice of the Louvin Brothers in 1968 when the Byrds, urged on by new member Gram Parsons, recorded “The Christian Life” on their Sweetheart of the Rodeo album. Parsons and Emmylou Harris covered the Louvins’ “Cash on the Barrel Head” in Parson’s posthumously released 1974 collection, Grievous Angel.
Fellow Alabamian Harris also turned to the Louvins for “If I Could Only Win Your Love,” her first Top 5 country single, in 1975. Indeed, Harris became one of the Louvins’ most passionate advocates. She and Louvin had a minor chart record in 1979 with the duet “Love Don’t Care.”
In 1992, Louvin paired with Charles Whitstein for the Louvin Brothers Music Celebration tour. (The Whitstein Brothers — Robert and Charles — were greatly influenced by the Louvins and, in 1969, recorded a tribute album, The Whitstein Brothers Sing Gospel Songs of the Louvin Brothers.)
In 1996, Louvin emerged again with the album The Longest Train, which featured guest vocals by Jim Lauderdale, Katy Moffatt, Rosie Flores, Barry and Holly Tashian and others.
For the 2003 album of Disney favorites interpreted by country stars, O Mickey, Where Art Thou, Louvin recorded “I Will Go Sailing No More” from Toy Story. That same year saw the release of the Grammy-winning tribute album, Livin’, Lovin’, Losin’: Songs of the Louvin Brothers, featuring Dierks Bentley, Ronnie Dunn, Joe Nichols, Vince Gill, Merle Haggard, Dolly Parton and James Taylor, among others. Also in 2003, Louvin expanded his presence in the contemporary rock world as an opening act for Cake’s Unlimited Sunshine tour.
During the past decade, Louvin recorded a series of albums for the independent Tompkins Square label, including a self-titled project that featured guest appearances by Elvis Costello, Jeff Tweedy, Tom T. Hall, George Jones, Bobby Bare, Tift Merritt, Marty Stuart and others. His most recent release, The Battle Rages On, was released in November.
A video documentary, Still Rattlin’ the Devil’s Cage, was shot in December at a Nashville nightclub to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Louvin Brothers’ classic album, Satan Is Real. It is expected to be released this spring on DVD.
The Louvin Brothers were inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1979 and the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2001.