100 Greatest Men: #37. The Louvin Brothers

100 Greatest Men: The Complete List

They would both go on to successful solo careers, but it was the music that Ira and Charlie Louvin made together that earned them a place in the annals of history.

Born in to Appalachian poverty, the Louvin Brothers began their public singing career by performing gospel standards at church.  Their distinctive harmonies and instrumental skills soon earned them a spot on AM radio in Chattanooga.  After Charlie did a brief tour with the Army, the duo moved to Knoxville, where their sound reached a wider audience.

By the late forties, the labels came calling. as did a publishing deal.  The Louvins released a few moderately successful singles before Charlie was sent back overseas, but when he returned, the brothers began incorporating country into their repertoire, a move largely influenced by their appearances on the Opry.   Throughout the fifties and early sixties, they released many of the most significant country compositions of all-time, including standards like the #1 hit “I Don’t Believe You’ve Met My Baby” and the top ten  “Cash on the Barrelhead.”

They never abandoned their gospel roots, as reflected in a series of classic albums with a spiritual focus.   One of their essential works was the LP Satan is Real, which became notorious for its vivid album artwork along with its music.   The increasing popularity of rock and roll slowed down their success, which sadly led to an alcohol addiction for Ira, who was encouraged to drop his signature mandolin from their sound.   His deterioration was the primary reason the duo disbanded in 1963.

Both brothers pursued solo careers, with Charlie forging out on his own and Ira performing with his new wife, Anne Young.  Tragically, Ira and Anne were killed in an automobile accident in 1965, preventing a reconciliation of the brothers.   Charlie proudly carried on the legacy of the Louvin Brothers, recording and performing right up until his death in 2011.

As years have gone by, the songs and recordings of the Louvin Brothers have become increasingly influential, shaping the sounds of the Byrds, Gram Parsons, Emmylou Harris, and others.  In 2002, a tribute album by contemporary country, bluegrass, and pop artists was a huge success, winning the Grammy for Best Country Album.   Their sound lives on in the work of every duo built around harmony, from the Everly Brothers to the Judds, their songs have been covered by artists as diverse as James Taylor and Dolly Parton, and their themed albums with powerful artwork are regarded as essential classics by both musicians and graphic designers.

Essential Singles:

  • When I Stop Dreaming, 1955
  • I Don’t Believe You’ve Met My Baby, 1956
  • Hoping That You’re Hoping, 1956
  • You’re Running Wild/Cash on the Barrelhead, 1956
  • My Baby’s Gone, 1958
  • The River of Jordan, 1959
  • How’s the World Treating You, 1961

Essential Albums:

  • The Louvin Brothers, 1956
  • Tragic Songs of Life, 1956
  • Ira and Charlie, 1958
  • Satan is Real, 1959
  • My Baby’s Gone, 1960
  • Sing and Play Their Current Hits, 1964

Next: #36. Ricky Skaggs

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100 Greatest Men: The Complete List

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2 Responses to 100 Greatest Men: #37. The Louvin Brothers

  1. Paul W DennisNo Gravatar

    I don’t know that I would say “[t]hey would both go on to successful solo careers” since Ira was killed before his solo career gained any traction. CHarlie already had released three charting singles (two top tens) and two albums before Ira’s sole album was released, but certainly their influence as a duo is what they are remembered for today.

    I got to see Charlie perform in Winter Park, FL a few years before his death. He was quite a performer

  2. DevinNo Gravatar

    Glad to see the Louvins made the top 40.

    What led me to discovering them was hearing Emmylou Harris’s covers of their songs, usually one on each of her 1970s albums. When I first listened to their music, I remember being pleasantly surprised that here was a 1950s commercially successful country act that was neither honky tonk or Nashville sound, but pure old-time Appalachia. You listen to country records from that time and a lot stands out, but no one as much as the Louvins. Who else was doing folk murder ballads? Who else sang songs about a God that was unseen but scared them to death and didn’t make it cornpone but genuinely spiritual and poetic? Who else wrote lyrics that ended up influencing and appealing to rock artists perhaps more than country ones? Their legacy on American roots music will endure forever.