Songs of Life

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David Cantwell writes:

The passing this week of Charlie Louvin reminded me of this piece I’d written some years ago (for the Miami New Times and its editor John Floyd), when the classic albums of Charlie and his late brother Ira, the Louvin Brothers, were just being issued for the first time on compact disc, when Charlie himself was making something of a comeback, and when the ironic v. the earnest was a current debate in alternative country circles. So here it is, edited slightly though probably not enough.

Not Kidding Around: The Tragic Songs of the Louvin Brothers

The Louvin Brothers were country music’s best-ever brother team, and when they titled their greatest album Tragic Songs Of Life, they weren’t kidding around. Over the course of that record, a woman rambles “this wide world all over,” leaving her abandoned lover to contemplate suicide; a man, rich beyond his dreams, sits alone in a mansion, longing for the wife and family he has never known; another man beats his girlfriend with a stick until the ground flows with her blood; still another man “shivers when the cold wind blows,” just thinking about the lover who is “on that train and gone.” Ira and Charlie sang each of these songs in tenor harmonies so perfect that all the usual descriptions–yearning, aching, high and lonesome–are rendered insufficient. If you said these harmonies were the closest anyone has ever come to actually simulating the pain of human loss and desire right there in the recording studio, you would probably be right. But you still wouldn’t be doing them justice.

Contemporary sensibilities struggle to make sense of such straightforward songs, especially ones sung so earnestly. To the generations born since the Louvins recorded–those among the Baby Boomers who mistook Dylan’s significance to mean that great art is obscure; the Gen Xers who slip into ironic detachment as easily as they breathe–these songs sound quaint, silly, corny. They are appreciated as kitsch, if at all, and dismissed as sentimental. The Louvins would have called them sentimental too, of course, but they wouldn’t have meant “mawkish” or “excessively romantic.” They would just have meant “full of deep feeling” or, more to the point, “true.” The Louvins knew that such songs simply recount the very stories that get told over and over, everyday, in people’s real lives. Broken hearts, loneliness, senseless death, losses of innumerable variety will forever be among the things that pull human emotions most passionately. Fittingly, the Louvins sang with an intense emotionalism that mirrored the way people actually experience such events. They called their album Tragic Songs Of Life, but simply Songs Of Life would have done as well.

It’s heartening then, if a bit surprising, that something of a Louvin Brothers renaissance appears to building. Last year, Razor & Tie released When I Stop Dreaming, a swell secular-heavy, one-disc history of the group, and this year, in addition to Tragic Songs Of Life, Capitol Nashville has reissued two more Louvin long players: 1959’s gospel classic Satan Is Real and 1960’s A Tribute To The Delmore Brothers. Now, Razor & Tie and Capitol plan to team up next fall to reissue another of the duo’s albums, Country Christmas from 1961, and Charlie Louvin has just released The Longest Train , his first solo album in seven years.

The Louvins were born Ira and Charlie Loudermilk in 1924 and 1927, respectively, in the Sand Mountain region of northern Alabama, just as the tragedy of the Great Depression was gearing up and just as country music’s great tradition of brother duets was reaching its commercial and artistic zenith. At church, Charlie and Ira sang and worshipped among tiny Pentecostal congregations filled with the laying on of hands and speaking in tongues, and at home, they huddled around the family radio, soaking up their favorite duets: the sweet, close harmonies of Bill and Earl Bolick (better known as the Blue Sky Boys), the high-and-lonesome harmonies of Charlie and Bill Monroe and, most of all, the smooth harmonies and boogie songs of Alton and Rabon Delmore (themselves Sand Mountain natives). Following in the tradition of their heroes, the Loudermilk boys taught themselves to pick and harmonize–Ira on mandolin and high-as-heaven tenor, Charlie on guitar and a tenor more down to earth–but it wasn’t until one day in 1940, when they had their doors blown off on the highway by Roy Acuff’s touring car, that they vowed to make music their life’s work.

Success was a long time coming. The brothers moved around a lot, performing here and there and finding usually brief jobs on radio stations all over the southland. They adopted Louvin as a stage name (for some reason, they thought it’d be easier to pronounce than Loudermilk). They recorded a handful of sides for a few labels without much notice, and they even broke up once when Charlie joined the army in 1945. Mainly, they just kept singing those tragic songs in those close, gorgeous harmonies, getting better at it every year and slowly developing a reputation as great singers, and gifted writers, especially when it came to gospel material. You can’t eat a reputation, though, and they were all but busted when Capitol producer Ken Nelson championed their cause, encouraging the Grand Ol’ Opry to hire them and, eventually, Capitol to let them record.

Their first real popularity was with their version of old-time southern gospel. Louvin compositions such as “Broadminded” (“That word ‘broadminded’ is spelled S-I-N”) and the minor-hit title track of their 1952 debut album, The Family Who Prays (with electric guitar courtesy of Chet Atkins), established the duo as successful sacred performers in the fervent Sand Mountain tradition. Their unique brand of reverent yet often judgmental gospel was all they recorded until they were able to persuade Nelson to let them cut one of their own secular songs, “When I Stop Dreaming,” a Top 10 country hit in 1955. Other hits quickly followed, making the brothers one of the most loved acts of their day. The best of these secular country hits was probably “I Don’t Believe You’ve Met My Baby,” a song so painfully paranoid and anxious (the narrator is scared because he has dreamed his baby has a new love) that it makes Roy Orbison look like the Dali Lama.

But Tragic Songs Of Life, originally released in 1956, remains their greatest achievement. “Alabama” and “Kentucky” (and the brilliant electric picking of Paul Yandell) are bursting with love and home and human connection, the very things that will make the grim losses of the remaining cuts feel so tragic. The album practically drips with death, as well as other less viscous losses. The album features the definitive versions of several traditional tunes that have now become country and bluegrass standards, most notably “In The Pines” and the horrifying, guilt-ridden first-person murder ballad “Knoxville Girl” (covered this year by both BR5-49 and The Lemonheads). Even in the pair’s secular recordings, God’s judgment seems to loom as a terrifying end.

So it’s no surprise that the brothers never completely abandoned the sacred.  Another new reissue, Satan Is Real from 1959, is nearly as strong as Tragic, and is filled with the spirit while also not being quite so harsh as much of their earlier gospel. The joyous testifying on “There’s A Higher Power” and “The River Of Jordan” are joyous duet examples of the jubilant southern gospel tradition that, today, is fading away. The album’s famous cover–the brothers in white Sunday suits, hands outstretched, Charlie smiling and Ira looking more racked, both standing in front of a 12 foot plywood Satan and a fiery, rocky hell that Ira made himself–is a tableau that might be viewed as camp today. One listen, however, to the peace in the Louvins’ harmonies on the nearly-Transcendental  “He Can Be Found” or the tremendous relief  in their  “Satan’s Jeweled Crown,” reminds us that these boys weren’t kidding around. Whether you take the sermon that Ira, a frustrated preacher, delivers on the title track (“It’s sweet to know that God is real…But Satan is real, too, and Hell is a real place”) to be literal, as he certainly intended, or to be a metaphor for human hubris and its resultant tragedies, you still know he meant every sanctified syllable.

The brothers knew that sense of tragedy well, especially Ira. Tired of Ira’s frequent fits of alcoholic fury (which over the years had routinely cost them gigs, pushed him to try to strangle Elvis, and resulted in many smashed bones and mandolins, as well as the three bullets his third wife put in his back), Charlie left his older brother in an ugly 1963 split. He went on to have a successful if unspectacular solo career throughout the 60s, as well as a few hit duets with Melba Montgomery in the early 70s. But Ira, along with his fourth wife, died in a Missouri auto accident in 1965, a tragically predictable end for a man who’d spent his life torn between the Word and the bottle.

Sadly, stories like Ira and Charlie Louvin’s are played out every day. During their too brief career, the Louvins sang about those tragic stories, as intensely, passionately, desperately as people feel them, all the while searching for peace. More than anything else, it’s that universal quest for harmony in a disharmonious world that shone through when the Louvin Brothers joined their voices in song. If we want to know the full worth of their art, we have to fight past the reflexive post-modern desire to roll our eyes and hear fervency as some big joke, and instead we have to listen as earnestly as they sang. We have to remember that, like each of us at the end of the day, the Louvin Brothers were not kidding around.

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