Sings Murder Ballads and Disaster Songs
This has been quite the year for the historically themed country album. Two of the year’s best releases have come from veteran singers exploring their roots, with Kathy Mattea collecting mining songs on Coal and Patty Loveless collecting traditional country songs on Sleepless Nights. The final month of 2008 has brought a third set of this nature, and it’s worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as those two predecessors.
As part of The Louvin Brothers and then on his own, Charlie Louvin has been a cornerstone of American music, influencing generations of performers while still maintaining his own vitality. Now in his eighties, his voice is rough and shopworn, with contours only producible by time. His weathered warbling is a comfortable fit for the assortment of old tragedy songs he has collected on his new release, Charlie Louvin Sings Murder Ballads and Disaster Songs.
The highlights of the set are abundant. There’s an understated reading of “Wreck on the Highway”, which lacks the intensity of Roy Acuff’s signature recording, creating an entirely different feel. “Mary of the Wild Moor” was recorded by both Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton near the turn of the century, but while their versions were laced with pity for the callous father, Louvin’s performance is matter-of-fact, allowing listeners to form their own judgments.
The same can’t be said for his performance of “Down With the Old Canoe.” This ballad of the Titanic demise is sung with sly condemnation, mocking the foolishness of those who thought they could build a ship so strong that God’s nature couldn’t strike it down. There are also warm moments that belie the doomsday title of the set, particularly “My Brother’s Will”, a sweet lament for a dying brother, and “The Little Grave in Georgia”, which paints a sadly beautiful portrait of a final resting place.
Like the Mattea and Loveless sets, Louvin’s album operates as both a historical document that preserves the legacy of the material, and as a vital piece of art in its own right. Louvin has the credibility to deliver stalwart chestnuts like “Wreck of the Ole 97” and “My Brother’s Will” with authority. Indeed, he’s one of the few living artists who can bridge the gap between these story songs and contemporary recorded music, making this a living piece of history and essential listening.