At this writing, the biggest name in country music is LeeAnn Rimes, a teenager whose handlers have managed to parlay her precocious Patsy Cline impressions into an incredibly lucrative debut album (Blue is triple platinum and still going strong), a Grammy for Best New Artist and a series of television commercials for Target department stores featuring Looney Tunes characters square-dancing and Rimes warbling in the background. The title of her latest release--Unchained Melody/The Early Years--sounds like the setup for a joke: You half-expect it to include goo-gooing recorded by her parents as she made a mess of her crib. In short, it's a cash-in, pure and simple, but that hasn't stopped consumers from pushing it into the top five of the popular-music charts. Which is appropriate, since Rimes's rise is very much a pop phenomenon--one that follows in the footsteps of such groundbreaking acts as the DeFranco Family, Musical Youth and New Kids on the Block.
While other current country success stories aren't quite as striking as Rimes's, they're just as driven by marketing. Deana Carter, whose two-million-selling Did I Shave My Legs for This? disc sits at number three on Billboard's top country albums roster, looks like a Breck Girl and sings like one, too; her tunes have all the sharp edges of a bowling ball.
Similarly mediocre and even more commercial is Shania Twain, whose most recent CD, The Woman in Me, has moved a jaw-dropping nine million units. Unfortunately, there's no correlation between sales and quality here. Twain's tunes--produced by her husband, Robert "Mutt" Lange, previously known for his work with C&W favorites Bryan Adams and the Cars--are twaddle that reached an audience in large part because of videos that effectively presented her as the foxiest mama in country music. As for the latest in male country stars, they're all but interchangeable: If you can tell the difference between Kenny Chesney, Tracy Byrd, Toby Keith, Tracy Lawrence and Ty Herndon simply by listening to them, you're in the minority, cowpoke.
What's especially lamentable about this state of affairs is the fact that country was once among the most moving and most sincere of the musical genres that came to prominence in these United States. From Jimmie Rodgers to George Jones, the finest country artists told stories in a raw, unvarnished manner that cut artifice to ribbons. Many listeners found it unsophisticated, and it was--proudly so. The men and women who operated within this style used its rudiments (ultra-simple rhythms, basic chord structures, yodeling vocals) to examine their lives, their loves and their catastrophes. Sure, the narratives were often melodramatic and the sentiments could turn mawkish at the drop of a ten-gallon hat, but it was always obvious that these performers meant what they were singing. And as demonstrated by three new reissues by the Louvin Brothers, arguably the top harmony duo in the annals of country music, that made all the difference. One listen to 1957's Tragic Songs of Life, 1959's Satan Is Real and 1960's A Tribute to the Delmore Brothers, released by Capitol Nashville, and you'll instantly realize what today's country is lacking: authenticity.
Ira and Charlie Loudermilk, who changed their names to Louvin for reasons that must have made sense at the time, didn't need to strive for this quality; it was their birthright. Their hometown--Henager, located in the Sand Mountain area of Alabama--was an impoverished community that felt the full brunt of the Great Depression that struck during the boys' youth. (Ira was born in 1924, Charlie in 1927.) As they came of age, they were influenced equally by the lessons they learned in the fundamentalist Christian church they attended and the singing of performers such as Alton and Rabone Delmore, aka the Delmore Brothers, whose sessions at the Grand Ole Opry were carried on the radio starting in 1932. Ira and Charlie began performing during the next decade, sticking mainly to gospel traditionals they had rearranged or originals that aspired to enliven the spirit and free the soul. Temperamentally, they had little in common. While Charlie was a steady, Jesus-loving type, Ira was prone to explosions: "My brother didn't get along with a lot of people," Charlie once said of him. But when they opened up their throats and harmonized together, these differences blended in gorgeous, fascinating ways. The effect was, and is, thrilling.
The Louvins' work eventually wound up on recordings put out by a variety of imprints, including Decca and MGM, but even though Fred Rose, a song publisher who helped bring Hank Williams to a wider public, was in their corner, they remained on the margins of the music scene. That changed in 1955, three years after they'd signed to Capitol Records, when producer Ken Nelson allowed them to record a secular ditty, "When I Stop Dreaming." The track was enough of a hit to convince Nelson that the Louvins deserved a chance to record an LP.
Today, calling an album Tragic Songs of Life would be career suicide; don't expect Brooks & Dunn to borrow the title anytime soon. But it was a perfect reflection of the Louvins' hardscrabble background. As Charlie told their biographer, Charles Wolfe, who wrote the liner notes for the three reissues, their mother used to entertain her lads by singing folk songs that often struck a balance between celebration and adversity. Tragic's "Let Her Go, God Bless Her" is a prime example. In this up-tempo ditty liberally sprinkled with mandolin, Ira sings about seeing his true love in church and realizing "from the way that she done up her hair" that her feelings for him were changing; later, he deals with this betrayal by crooning, in the most casual way imaginable, "Sometimes I take a good notion/ To jump in the river and drown." Grimmer yet are "What Is Home Without Love," in which riches and a mansion are no substitute for wifely companionship; "My Brother's Will," a cut that finds one sibling asking another to explain his demise to his loved ones; and a poignant story of death during wartime, "Take the News to Mother." But even tales as dour as these pale next to "Knoxville Girl," a slightly reworked English folk tune in which the protagonist slays his beloved for reasons that are never clearly explained. Lyrics such as "She never spoke another word/I only beat her more/Until the ground around me with her blood did flow" would be striking anyhow, but rather than hammer them at listeners like Marilyn Manson might, the Louvins caress them in tandem, with Charlie taking the main melody line and Ira supplementing it with a ghostly tenor that infuses the song with a plain-spoken luridness that David Lynch would envy.
When the brothers asked Capitol to release "Knoxville Girl" as Tragic's first single, the reaction they received was predictable; according to Wolfe, executives dubbed it "morbid." But three years later, with the Kingston Trio riding high with "Tom Dooley," the company's decision-makers concluded that the time was right for a good murder ballad, and "Knoxville Girl" became a country smash.
Rather than follow up "Girl" with more of the same, the Louvins returned to their gospel roots. But whereas their first gospel platter, 1957's Nearer My God to Thee, was filled with standard hymns, Satan Is Real was every bit as eccentric as its famous cover, which pictures a plywood devil built by Ira looming over a fiery landscape peopled by the cheerfully oblivious Louvins. The recording juxtaposes loving evocations of churchly virtues like "The Christian Life," which the Byrds included on their classic album Sweetheart of the Rodeo, with Old Testament warnings such as "Are You Afraid to Die," "The Drunkard's Doom" and "Satan's Jeweled Crown." Most memorable of all is the title cut, which starts out as a standard folk song before devolving into a bona fide sermon, delivered by Ira with a deadpan theatricality that only heightens its effectiveness. He portrays a man who stands up in the middle of mass to point out that Lucifer is every bit as concrete as the Lord above. After recounting the events that shattered his home and led his children down the path to destruction, he intones, "Yes, preacher, it's sweet to know that God is real and to know that in him, all things are possible. And we know that heaven is a real place where joy shall never end. But sinner-friend, if you're here today, Satan is real, too. And Hell is a real place--a place of everlasting punishment."
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Ira spent plenty of time there. He was an alcoholic given to fits of rage that frequently led to trouble. Author Peter Guralnick, in his exhaustive study Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley, relates one particularly telling Ira anecdote. In early 1956 the brothers were on tour with the young king, in part because Presley was so knocked out by their work; he would stand in the wings and watch their sets each night. These warm feelings came to an end after Ira got into an argument with Presley's manager, Colonel Tom Parker, about money. Days later, Elvis told Ira that gospel was his favorite type of music. As Guralnick tells it, Ira responded, "Why, you white nigger, if that's your favorite music, why don't you do that out yonder? Why do you do that nigger trash out there?" Presley tried to wiggle out of the confrontation, but Ira would have none of it; he "tried to strangle him," Charlie said.
Eventually, Charlie got fed up with such scenes. Three years after the appearance of A Tribute to the Delmore Brothers, a lovely array of covers like "Weary Lonesome Blues," "Freight Train Boogie" and "Midnight Special," he collaborated with Ira for the last time. Charlie went on to record under his own name for Capitol and actually did well enough to keep a contract with the label into the Seventies. But none of his work reached the gorgeously perverse heights that he scaled alongside his older brother--and a reunion was out of the question. After all, Ira had to keep a date with the Devil. He died in 1965 in an automobile crash that also killed his wife. She was his fourth.
A happier ending seems in the cards for Charlie. Late last year Watermelon Records released The Longest Train, his first new album in ages. A collection of Louvin Brothers classics, including "When I Stop Dreaming," the CD features contributions by Rosie Flores and Jim Lauderdale, a pair of artists far worthier than many of their contemporaries. Charlie was also slated to appear at this year's South By Southwest festival, and although he canceled at the last minute for what were rumored to be health reasons, he was likely heartened to hear that a great many musicians and journalists were disappointed not to be able to hear him.
It's doubtful that the general public would have shared this reaction. The Louvins' music is so far divorced from the bland platitudes offered up by their successors these days that the average aficionado of so-called hot country might well be horrified by it--and that's completely understandable. Country, like Satan, is real. Too bad there's so little of the genuine item still around.