31 January 2011

Tribute (In Memoriam): Charlie Louvin

The Louvin Brothers, Charlie and Ira ... One of the great close-harmony brother acts. The sound of Ira's mandolin and Chet Atkins' guitar, making the best music this side of heaven, even when singing about Satan. These songs on death, sin, and despair resonate with raw power and start beauty. . .
----Bob Dylan, Theme Time Radio Hour ("The Devil" episode)

Charlie Louvin was haunted by a voice in his head for over 40 years. Charlie said every time he sang a song originally recorded with his brother Ira, he would subconsciously step away from the microphone out of deference for his sibling's response. In 2007, Charlie told Paste that "Anytime and every time I sing a song, I can hear his part, even though he's not there. I ain't never found nobody who can duplicate Ira's part. A lot of people imitate him, but no one can sing a harmony like he could."

Born Charles Elzer Loudermilk in Henager, Alabama in 1927, Charlie was one of seven children raised on a cotton and potato farm. The family had a collection of 78s that they would listen to in the evenings after returning from the fields. Charlie and big brother Ira (by three years) particularly were drawn to the records of the Delmar Brothers and the Monroe Brothers. Like so many singers, they honed their voices in church; the boys attended Baptist services regularly, and the fire-and-brimstone from that pulpit would be reflected in the Loudermilk brothers' professional careers.

Charlie and Ira changed their stage name in 1947 to The Louvin Brothers. Signed as a gospel act, the two were determined to crack the secular market. And indeed they did. Between 1952 and 1963 they had a string of Top 10 country singles on the Capitol label, including "When I Stop Dreaming," "I Don't Believe You've Met My Baby," "You're Running Wild" and "Cash On The Barrel Head." Their harmonies - Ira's tenor on top, Charlie's baritone filling out the bottom - were almost seamless.

Here's Ira on mandolin and Charlie on guitar from 1961 doing "I Can't Keep You In Love With Me":

The partnership ended in 1963, when Ira's drinking, womanizing and temper wore his little brother out. In a cruel irony, Ira was killed in a car crash by a drunk driver in Missouri on June 20, 1965. "Do I miss him?" Charlie asked tersely to the Paste interviewer after his brother had been dead for almost 42 years. "Of course I miss him. How would you like to do without your brother, your wife or one of your children? If something happened to them, you'd miss them."

Most serious music followers have probably never listened to The Louvin Brothers. But when they do, their first reaction is usually "they sound like The Everly Brothers with a country bent." And one cannot underestimate the influence The Louvin Brothers had on the progeny that followed: from Don & Phil Everly to Lennon & McCartney to Simon & Garfunkel to Gram Parsons & Emmylou Harris to Roger McGuinn & Chris Hillman.

Listen to Emmylou harmonize with Charlie and Vern Gosdin back in the 1980s on "Love & Wealth":

In 2003, the list of singers who signed up for the tribute album Livin', Lovin', Losin': Songs of The Louvin Brothers included this staggering cast: Johnny Cash, Allsion Krauss, Harris, Merle Haggard, Dolly Parton and James Taylor. And his 2007 album Charlie Louvin featured guest turns by Elvis Costello, Jeff Tweedy, George Jones, Tift Meritt, Tom T. Hall, Marty Stewart and Will Oldham.

Charlie Louvin died after a bout with pancreatic cancer last Wednesday at the age of 83. He is survived by his wife of 61 years, Betty, and three sons.

A fitting tribute is this performance of "My Baby's Gone" at Royal Albert Hall on 18 June 2009 by Nick Lowe and Ron Sexsmith (tip of the cap to reader Al for the great video find):

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