by Alan Tyler
It’s sad to hear that Charlie Louvin has passed away. He was one half of the famous close harmony singing Louvin Brothers; Elvis Presley’s favourite musical duo and probably the most significant link between the older traditions of country and gospel and the pioneers of country rock who followed them in the sixties and seventies. The Byrds, Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris all covered Louvin Brothers’ songs, and emulated their highly pitched, keen and passionate approach to country singing and song.
Charlie sang “low tenor” to his elder brother Ira’s higher lead parts, and just as he provided a sound singing foundation for their music, in life and throughout their career Charlie was an anchor of sanity and stability for his more creative but dangerously volatile and demon haunted brother. The height of their success was in the fifties. Ten years later, when this singing duo from Sand Mountain, Alabama had split up and Ira had met his doom in a gruesome drunken car smash that took the lives of five other people, Charlie went on to a long and successful solo career. On his own he had more hits on the US country charts than the Louvins ever had together, and more recently he made a cluster of well received albums. I doubt though if many will dispute that it will be for his part in the seminal Louvin Brothers that Charlie will be remembered.
Getting into my country music in the late eighties I discovered a couple of re-released Louvin Brothers albums in Rhythm Records, Camden. I bought “Tragic Songs of Life” but passed over ‘Satan Is Real,’ wary perhaps of the promise (or threat!) of so much gospel, fire and brimstone. Nevertheless, whenever I went back to the shop I would go and marvel at the album’s outrageous cover, which has the Louvins standing in white suits in front of a volcanic blaze and the red outline of a devil. It was not a photo montage as I had supposed. In Charles Wolfe’s biography ‘In Close Harmony’ (which is well worth getting hold of) Charlie explained how the cover came about. “Ira built that [set]. The devil was twelve feet tall, built out of plywood. We went to this rock quarry and then took old tires and soaked them in kerosene, got them to burn good. It had just started to sprinkle rain when we got that picture taken. Those rocks, when they get hot, they blow up. They were throwing pieces of rock up into the air.”
These days, ‘Satan Is Real’ is my favourite Louvin Brothers album. Musically it is every bit as inventive and entertaining as the cover, and somehow combines its religious seriousness with more than a little humour. Apart from the wonderful ‘Christian Life,’ later covered by The Byrds, I love the title track, a startling and dramatic monologue by Ira on the wages of sin, sandwiched between an implausibly melodious, lilting refrain at beginning and end. Another favourite of mine is “He Can Be Found”; a pantheist spiritual on the divinity of everyday things that has soul enough to soften the most hardened materialist.
I had the pleasure of talking to Charlie not so long ago at a gig he did at Dingwalls, London, where he held court with the smokers outside before going on stage. He was cheerful, charming and spoke with pleasing irreverence and insightfulness about the music he loved and the politics and big issues of the day. By then he had outlived Ira Louvin for the greater part of fifty years. He was a good old boy and a true gent who now rests, with brother Ira we hope, in peace.
Alan Tyler writes the songs and sings in the Rockingbirds.