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.
This is my fifth such list in as many years, and I have to say that I was mostly underwhelmed by the albums of 2008. If it wasn’t for the contributions of the other writers, who made me aware of some fine albums I might have otherwise missed, it would’ve been difficult to compile a list at all. That being said, there were at least ten albums from 2008 that I will be listening to in 2009 and beyond.
Jim Lauderdale & The Dream Players, Honey Songs
No matter how much honey you put in the mix, the ragged words and vocals of Jim Lauderdale will cut through. The glorious contrast between Lauderdale and his sonic surroundings make for a fascinating listen.
Joey + Rory, The Life of a Song
It’s rare for any act to make a debut album without compromise, let alone one that hails from a reality competition show. This is pure, straight off the back porch joy.
Kasey Chambers & Shane Nicholson, Rattlin’ Bones
A pure roots album with a progressive edge, the best of its kind since the Dixie Chicks moved to L.A.
Lee Ann Womack, Call Me Crazy
While it doesn’t reach the heights of There’s More Where That Came From, there are some fine moments here that are on par with Womack’s best work, especially the passive-aggressive “Either Way” and the Wynette-worthy “If These Walls Could Talk.”
Patty Loveless, Sleepless Nights
Effortlessly excellent. Loveless is so in her element here that it’s a wonder that it took more than two decades to record this in the first place. A wonderful treat to feast on while we wait for her next proper studio album.
Chris Stapleton’s voice just blows me away. As Lee Ann Womack has recently observed, he sings like a real man. He takes Travis Tritt’s soulfulness to a whole new level. With incredible harmonies and terrific songs not limited to “Blue Side of the Mountain” and “Drinkin’ Dark Whiskey”, this is a strong project that certainly stood out in 2008.
Jason Boland & The Stragglers, Comal County Blue
I love Boland’s folk-tinged country voice, which sings these memorable fiddle laden melodies to great affect. While the lyrics can be abstract at times, they still manage to feel meaningful. I’ve come to realize that what ultimately appeals to me about this album is the fact that it reminds me of good nineties country music, which is the era that drew me to this genre in the first place.
Darrell Scott, Modern Hymns
My admiration for Darrell Scott is unending. I, of course, love his voice, but I especially love his thoughtful songwriting. “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive” just floors me every time I hear it. In this project, however, he chose to cover some of his favorite songs that he classifies as modern hymns. Unsurprisingly, these choices turn out to be as interesting as his own compositions, which simply confirms that his talent is inspired by tasteful writing equal to his own.
Jamey Johnson, That Lonesome Song
Admittedly, nothing about this album is warm or pretty. Johnson’s vocals are harsh and the songs are mostly darker than we’re accustomed to hearing in country music these days. Along with the outlaw tinged productions, these factors are the fundamental elements of this great album.
Peter Cooper, Mission Door
While the melodies on his first album, Mission Door, are enough to draw you in, it is Peter Cooper’s provocative and insightful lyrics which catch you by surprise on this folk infused, steel guitar laden album. Cooper either wrote or co-wrote ten out of the twelve tracks that explores such weighty topics as racism and poverty. He enlists the help of Nanci Griffith and Todd Snider, his two favorite singers, on the album’s stand out title track, along with recording his own mellower version of “Thin Wild Mercury”, which he co-wrote with Todd Snider for Snider’s The Devil You Know album.
The best and most powerful song on the album, however, is “715 (For Hank Aaron), a song that discusses the duality of Aaron being a revered baseball player and an oppressed black man. This grossly ignored album that sounds like a mix of Darrell Scott and Todd Snider, with lots of steel guitar thrown in for good measure, is one of the year’s most intriguing albums.
Charlie Louvin 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.
Country Music Hall of Fame inductee Charlie Louvin (one half of the Louvin Brothers) is full of praise on his latest release Steps to Heaven. By recording a religious album, Louvin expresses his deep devotion to the values espoused by Christianity, but his careful readings of these songs help create a comfort level for any listener, regardless of faith.
The 81-year-old Louvin’s voice is displaying far more character with age. His husky, gritty turn on the album’s fiercest tracks are joined by a ragged, rough take on a number of these sacred songs. The production handled by Mark Nevers is never overdone, leaving Louvin’s accurate evaluations of these songs to stand alone, without the studio tricks that can plague many country-rooted albums. However, the harmony singing (the album’s mood is assisted by a gospel choir) do tend to surpass Louvin’s well-weathered vocal stylings.
It’s that remarkable talent from Louvin that carries the songs, the sound of experience emitted from a man who has searched far and wide for the answers to his day-to-day questions. Secular fans, life-long Christians and new disciples to country music will all appreciate this fascinating experience, as the stories in these songs make a strong impact, especially since this message is sent from a man who has, for the lack of a better word, lived.
What makes the album remarkable is the anticipation, no fear here, that Louvin holds of making the trip to the other side . Songs like “I Feel Like Traveling On” and “I Am Bound for the Promised Land”, an excellent pair of songs to close the album, are single-handedly focused on the task at hand. That assignment, to prepare for the coming glory, can appeal to a secular audience in its message of hope, faith and optimism, even in the face of struggle.
On Steps to Heaven, Louvin is best with little support. On a couple tracks, most notably on “How Beautiful Heaven Must Be”, he’s slightly overwhelmed by the choir’s robust backing vocals. The combination is much better on “Just Rehearsing”, with a joyous piano joined with Louvin’s matchless, often jagged voice. The two finest efforts on the album, “Where We’ll Never Grow Old” and “If We Never Meet Again This Side of Heaven” are full of raw emotion and are left with Louvin unaccompanied but for his harmony help and the clean instrumentation that’s clear throughout the album.
Steps from Heaven is a sweet victory for Louvin, and shows that music at its deepest is capable of having a highly redemptive quality. It will stand as a milestone in a career that continues to break new ground.