(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
The death this week of Charlie Louvin marked a final farewell to a large and important chapter of country music. He was a frail, final thread to an era of spiritual, old-world, sometimes-spectral country ballads that framed and illuminated the hard and often tragic lives of immigrants who settled into the hardscrabble life of Appalachia.
His was truly a voice from another century, and his music reflected a country sensibility from another age. And when he and his brother Ira worked together as the Louvin Brothers, they were other-worldly, both in their songwriting and in their singing. There is little argument that they were the most influential harmony duo in country music history. They were probably the most eloquent example of lovely sibling harmony singing ever. Such “blood harmony” singing, as it used to be called, can verge on the transcendental, with such harmonies by the Louvins and later the Everly Brothers and extending up to the current duo the Secret Sisters.
The album I reached for when I heard that Charlie was gone was not a Louvin Brothers record, nor a Charlie Louvin solo work. What I wanted to hear again is a marvelous tribute album to the Louvin brothers. It very deservedly won a Grammy in 2004 as country album of the year. And it remains one of the best country albums in recent memory. More about that record in a moment.
The Louvin Brothers, during the years they performed and recorded together, were not noticeably prolific on the Billboard country singles chart. Between 1955 and 1962, they charted only a dozen singles. Only one made it to No. 1 — “I Don’t Believe You’ve Met My Baby” in 1956. After the duo broke up in 1963, Ira charted only one single as a solo artist and it rose no higher than No. 44 in 1965. He was killed later that year in a car wreck.
Charlie’s solo career did a bit better. From 1964 until 1973, he charted 30 singles in Billboard, none rising higher than No. 4. After 1973, he continued recording and performing and was sort of rediscovered by pop and rock artists and a younger record-buying audience. His last recording is now available from the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. It’s a single, with “Alabama” on one side and “Back When We Were Young” on the other. The latter is a Tom T. Hall composition, and “Alabama” was the first song the Louvins recorded together.
The impact of the Louvin Brothers, however, extends far beyond their somewhat limited chart success. Their live shows and especially their appearances on the Grand Ole Opry drew a devoted audience. And in recent years, some of their remarkable body of work began to attract a younger and diverse crowd. Beginning with Gram Parsons persuading the Byrds to record “The Christian Life” and Emmylou Harris’ decision to cover “If I Could Win Your Love,” Louvin music attracted and continues to attract artists ranging from Elvis Costello to Jack White to Uncle Tupelo to Lucinda Williams.
The “rediscovered” Louvin songs reflected the gothic tones of the dark Irish and Scottish ballads that accompanied immigrants settling into Appalachia in the 1900s. “Knoxville Girl,” as one example, is a bleak tale of murder. The song themes were God, Satan, mother, death, murder, dying children and the like. Some song titles: “Are You Afraid to Die,” “Drunkard’s Doom,” “Gonna Shake Hands With Mother,” “Insured Beyond the Grave,” “Little Grave in Georgia,” “Satan and the Saint” and “Satan Lied to Me.” Both their sound and their song themes were firmly rooted in the early 20th century. Their album Satan Is Real, with the spectacular cover of the Louvins depicted in front of Satan and his flames, remains a cult favorite.
Much as I love their own recordings, there’s a lasting treat for Louvin fans in the tribute album I referred to earlier. It’s the 2004 Grammy-winning Livin, Lovin’, Losin’: Songs of the Louvin Brothers. (It should be noted that not every song on the album was written by the Louvins, but they recorded or performed them.) It reflects for me the love and respect that so many major music artists felt for the Louvins. The album contains 16 Louvin songs performed by a long list of prominent Louvin fans, including Merle Haggard, James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt, Dolly Parton, Alison Krauss, Glen Campbell, Vince Gill, Rodney Crowell, Emmylou Harris and Johnny Cash and many others. And the performances were not phoned in. This is some sweet singing. Just listen to Taylor harmonize with Krauss on “How’s the Word Treating You.” Or Marty Stuart with Del McCoury on “Let Us Travel, Travel On.” Or Harris with Crowell on “My Baby’s Gone.”
Charlie played Bonnaroo and toured with Cake and Cheap Trick in his last years. Those gigs were a sweet revenge for such a hard career, played out over so many long and hard years. “When I Stop Dreaming” will live for many years as a fitting Louvin epitaph.