Special Report

Louvin Feeling

Even with the belated recognition, the old singer remains as down-to-earth as ever.

By 7.2.08

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It's a warm June evening and we're sitting on the patio smoking Luckies and drinking Schlafly's, the local microbrew. That is, I'm drinking and Charlie Louvin is smoking. I don't smoke and Charlie doesn't drink, but then Charlie Louvin's never needed anything to loosen his tongue.

Right now he's telling the one about the "little ol' Sunday school teacher" who didn't drink or smoke, because "what would she tell her Sunday School class?" Despite this she has no problem jumping in the hay with a total stranger. The next morning the amazed stranger asks, "What will you tell your Sunday school class?" to which she responds, "Same thing I always tell them. You don't have to smoke or drink to have a good time!"

You can tell Charlie Louvin, who turns 81 on July 7, is having a heck of a good time. A lot of performers, if they live long enough, are granted a strange kind of respect, whether they deserve it or not.

I doubt you'd find too many people who would deny Charlie Louvin his recent recognition, which has included two Grammys for a Louvin Brothers tribute album, frequent guest appearances at the Grand Ole Opry, the opening of a Louvin Brothers' museum, a new duets album with the likes of George Jones and Tift Merritt, and invitations to play large rock festivals and tour with Cheap Trick and Cake.

But even with the belated recognition Charlie Louvin remains as down-to-earth as they come. No doubt because fame never bothered much with him, nor he with it.

I'd rather drink Schlafly's and listen to an old time country musician tell stories than any thing else I can think of. And Charlie Louvin's stories are some of the best I've ever heard, particularly the ones that describe growing up on a farm in the Alabama hill country, and the early days with his brother Ira before record deals and the Grand Ole Opry, when the brothers made their living performing live on stations like WROL and WNOX Knoxville.

They were born Charlie Elzer and Ira Lonnie Loudermilk on Sand Mountain on the southern tip of the Appalachian mountains, and raised Hell-is-Real Baptists. (Later the now kitschy album "Satan is Real," somewhat reminiscent of the best southern gothic tales of Flannery O'Conner, became their best-known album.)

The Loudermilks' father was a dirt farmer who sometimes strummed the banjo, and Charlie tells how Ira once snuck the instrument out of the window so he could join the kids after school for a hootenanny, and got his backside tanned for it, while I'm thinking how hard it is just to get my son to sit for five minutes at his piano.

Charlie has literally hundreds of stories that he has honed over the years at the Louvin Brothers Museum in Nashville, each one a bit of historical Americana. He tells about learning shape-note singing at the local Baptist church -- and none of these simple, childlike songs they sing nowadays, written so as not to traumatize five-year-old girls, but creepy close harmony tunes like "Are you Washed in the Blood?" and "Sinner, You'd Better Get Ready."

We've only got so much time before he departs (in more ways than one) so we're pumping Charlie for more stories. He seems happy to oblige. He tells about the time his father came home from a swap meet with a stack of 78's ("Our old man could take one dog to a swap meet and come home with five.") There were records by the Delmore Brothers, the Monroe Brothers and the Blue Sky Boys, and Fiddlin' Sid Harkreader.

Charlie and Ira wanted to listen to them all, but they were ordered to bed. So, "We waited till the folks went to sleep, then we got out the Victrola, tore a straw from the broom, clenched it between our teeth and placed it between the grooves. If you stop up your ears you can really hear it. We listened to a lot of records that way."

IRA WAS THE TROUBLED one, a black sheep with the high lonesome alto who wrote some of the best country and gospel songs, well, ever.

He also had a temper like a firecracker. Charlie remembers how Ira would come over with a new song, a song he'd never heard before, and if Charlie didn't get the notes right on the first or second try Ira would crumble up the song and throw it away. How many country classics were lost that way?

Mandolins were lost too. If a mandolin string worked itself out of tune Ira would smash the instrument to pieces on stage and stomp on the pieces. Later he'd sweep the pieces and rebuild it even better. Ira seemed to go to pieces when the Louvins took up country music and gained a modicum of success. He felt he'd sold his soul to the devil. His temper worsened, as did his drinking. He would alternately preach at and curse the audiences.

A few years earlier the Louvins had toured with an opening act, a charismatic Mississippi kid named Presley. One night before a show the kid told Ira how much he loved their gospel music. ("If that's true," snapped Ira, "why do you play black music?") Not that it mattered. In a few years that kid would be crowned the king, and the Presley-era would spell the doom for old time country gospel acts.

Ira's constant struggle with his personal demons would lead to the Louvin Brothers break-up in 1963, and cost him three marriages. Faye Louvin, wife number three, got so fed up with Ira that once after he tried to choke her she fetched a revolver and opened fire hitting him three to five times in the back (accounts vary).

Being a professional singer of tragic songs, Charlie doesn't mind talking about his older brother's death at the age of 41. Ira was on his way home from a gig in Kansas City on Father's Day, 1965. There was construction on Highway 70 and it was down to one lane. Ira and his fourth wife, Anne Young, were traveling just outside of Williamsburg, Missouri when they were hit head on by a drunken driver. Both were killed instantly.

After a brief silence it's time to get off the heavy stuff, and we change the subject to the new self-titled album. On it Charlie Louvin sings duets of Louvin Brothers' hits with George "Possum" Jones, Tom T. Hall, Bobby Bare, Elvis Costello, Jeff Tweedy and a few people Charlie had never heard of like Tift Merritt. ("I thought that was a guy.")

Someone comments on Marty Stuart's haunting mandolin on "Knoxville Girl," an old English folk song he learned from his mother. "Marty was only supposed to play on one or two songs, but he stayed and played on every one. Afterward I said, hold on, I got to pay you, and he put away his mandolin and said, 'You just did.'"

We could go on like this all night -- or at least till the Schlafly's holds out -- but it comes time for Charlie Louvin to take the stage. He stubs out his Lucky Strike and winks at my girlfriend. "You got a license to carry those?" She laughs and says, "Dirty old man!"

As we're heading in, he turns to me and says, "There's an old hill country saying that people are either like horses or mules. A horse will only work till he gets tired then he will lie down. But a mule will work till it drops dead. Guess which one I am?"

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About the Author
Christopher Orlet writes from St. Louis.