R.I.P. Charlie Louvin, 1927-2011
The week just got a little sadder: American country and folk icon Charlie Louvin lost his long battle with pancreatic cancer yesterday at the age of 83. Louvin's death marks the passage of a living piece of American music history.
Beginning in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Charlie Louvin and his brother Ira helped shape the course of popular music. The Louvin Brothers' rich harmonies and roots-based ballads charted the course for vocal-based duos like the Everly Brothers and even helped guide early rock stars like Elvis Presley.
Spurred by their parents, the Louvin brothers started singing as Charlie and Ira Loudermilk as children in Alabama. They started with early harmonized versions of folk staples like "The Knoxville Girl," "Mary of the Wild Moor" and "I Love You Best of All." As Charlie started complementing their performances on guitar and Ira took up mandolin, the pair's distinctive harmonic style expanded from their early imitations of groups like the Delmore Brothers and the Blue Sky Boys.
Charlie Louvin briefly served in the military in the 1940s (including a stretch at Lowry Air Force base in 1946), but the lure of music proved too powerful. The Louvin Brothers created a buzz with their powerful versions of the staples they'd sung as boys, winning a spot at the Grand Ole Opry, where they'd stay until the group broke up in 1963. The pair's music was unapologetic in its devotion to its gospel roots.
The pair's 1959 album Satan Is Real gained cult status for its sometimes over-the-top message, featuring tunes with titles like "The Christian Life" and "Satan's Jeweled Crown." Still, the spiritual ardor and purity that marked the pair's music couldn't banish all of their personal demons. Ira Louvin died in a drunk-driving accident in 1965, a tragedy that capped a long struggle with alcohol.
"What Are Those Things (With Big Black Wings)"
The loss of his brother pushed Charlie Louvin out of the music business for the years that would follow. Eventually, he devoted himself to keeping the duo's legacy alive, establishing the Louvin Brothers Museum in Nashville and releasing an album of old Louvin Brothers songs in 2007. The album featured guest appearances from artists like Elvis Costello, Jeff Tweedy and George Jones for indelible classics like "The Kneeling Drunkard's Plea," "Great Atomic Power" and "Ira," a song he penned for his brother.
Westword interviewed Louvin in 2007, and I had the chance to interview him for my college newspaper that same year. I later saw him perform at the Bluebird Theater, and Louvin, who was then just nearing his eightieth birthday, was warm and engaging; he told stories in a measured Southern drawl and marveled at the course of his life, his music.
Still, the country legend seemed reticent about taking up the touring lifestyle once again. He still seemed passionate about the music, the message and the Louvin Brothers' legacy, but some element seemed to be missing as he set out to revive the songs he'd immortalized with his older brother.
"When we were a duet together, I would do the solo part, and when it was time for the harmony to move in, I would move to my left a half step because we just used one mike," Charlie Louvin told me. "I still do that unconsciously. When I get to where the harmony should come in, I'll move off the mike just a little. I still hear it in my head."
Like the artists he influenced over generations, it seemed as if Charlie Louvin couldn't shake the raw, evocative and moving power of the close, angelic harmonies he'd recorded so long ago with Ira.