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Although he's only months from his eightieth birthday, Charlie Louvin is hipper than ever. Thanks to the release of Charlie Louvin, a new disc on Tompkins Square that's chock-a-block with guest stars, he was invited to play this year's South by Southwest confab, and he's also booked for Tennessee's annual Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival, where he'll share the bill with the likes of the White Stripes and Wolfmother. How's he dealing with all the attention?
"To tell you the truth," he says, "it scares the hell out of me."
A lot of the music made by the Louvin Brothers, a duo that consisted of Charlie and his brother Ira, has done the same thing to listeners for decades -- but in a good way. The pair produced astonishing gospel long-players such as 1960's Satan Is Real, which juxtaposed salvation's heavenly beauty with sin's glorious temptations on tracks such as "The Kneeling Drunkard's Plea." (This last tune cut close to the bone for Ira, an alcoholic who died in a 1965 car crash.) However, even their secular material often combined the gorgeous and the eerie, most famously on "Knoxville Girl," their astringent version of a folk tale about a horrendous crime of passion. "We still have a lot of those kind of nuts around today," Louvin says in reference to the song's murderous protagonist. "If a girl gives him a piece of tail or promises something she don't live up to, he just comes unglued and bumps her off -- which is bad, but I guess that's life."
The Louvins were so big in the early '50s that Elvis Presley opened a series of concerts for them. (That changed mid-tour, and, Charlie concedes, "It was the right thing to do. He was, like the old saying goes, hotter than a tater tot.") In the late '60s and early '70s, country-rockers Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris championed the brothers' work, thereby introducing it to many of the performers who contribute to the re-recordings of Louvin highpoints that populate the new disc. Among those on hand are Wilco's Jeff Tweedy, Lambchop's Kurt Wagner, Elvis Costello and Will Oldham, not to mention fellow country vets George Jones, Bobby Bare and Tom T. Hall.
The years have put their mark on Louvin's voice. Even so, he says, "I believe I can tell a story better today than I could forty years ago. That's the kind of songs I like. I like songs that are humanly possible."
He's grown to appreciate the improbable, too -- as exemplified by his born-again trendiness. Still, he says, "I'm not going to do anything different from what I've been doing. I'm just going to do my best, and sometimes my best today may not be as good as my best yesterday. But I always do my best."
For more of our conversation with Charlie Louvin, visit www.westword.com/blogs.