Sunday, March 04, 2007

The Glorious Return of Charlie Louvin

With his late brother Ira, Charlie Louvin co-authored Satan is Real, one of the great masterpieces of American country music, and certainly one of the most unlikely. The rich perfect harmony of their voices laid out a vision of Christian love and eternal damnation that is doggedly true to its roots and concedes nothing to modern taste. Call it primitive, call it out-of-date, call it old-timey tent-revival tripe, call it cornball fundamentalist flapdoodle, if you wish, but don't call it dishonest or insincere. Behind such classics as "The Christian Life," (later covered by the Byrds) "The Kneeling Drunkard's Plea" (a Carter family classic covered by Johnny Cash on his third American Recordings disc), or "Are You Afraid to Die?" (later performed by Ralph Stanley) is a depth of feeling and uncompromising belief that undercuts the sentimentality, and is nothing short of moving.

The Louvins would also record an album titled Tragic Songs of Life, and the vision of life in Satan is Real is tragic indeed. Salvation may be available to all, but chances are you're only going to get it by the skin of your teeth, if at all, provided you can crawl from the wreckage of your own alcohol-wracked existence. The songs, over and over, convey a message that life basically boils down to a choice: drunkenness, despair and hell, or sobriety, grace and heaven. Satan is real, alright, and to open a bottle of whiskey is to unleash a flood of destruction that first rips apart families and then kills everyone left standing. Life without Christ is indeed brutish, nasty and short:

Companion, draw nigh
They say I must die
Early the summons has come from on high
The way is so dark
And yet I must go
Oh that such sorrow
You never may know

From the first cut to the last, it's like nothing else you've heard, and that immortally weird, gospel kitsch cover only adds to the effect, as does the sad, eerily prophetic, life-imitates-art aftermath of the brothers. Like some character in their songs, Ira became an alcoholic, and after years of feuding, the brothers went their separate ways.

I'll let the Alabama Music Hall of Fame tell the tale from there:

Charlie was the more successful of the two, with his debut single "I Don't Love You Anymore" reaching number four upon its summer release in 1964. For the next decade, he racked up a total of 30 hit singles, though most of the records didn't make the Top 40. Ira's luck wasn't as good as his brother's. Shortly after the Louvins disbanded, he had a raging, alcohol-fueled argument with his third wife Faye that resulted in a shooting that nearly killed him. He continued to perform afterward, singing with his fourth wife Anne Young. The duo were performing a week of concerts in Kansas City in June of 1965 when they were both killed in a car crash in Williamsburg, Missouri. After his death, his single "Yodel, Sweet Molly" became a moderate hit.

Luckily, for the rest of us, Charlie kept on, and he's just come out with a terrific record.

The first thing you notice about the vocalist on Charlie Louvin is that he's old -- 80 to be exact -- but also hale and hearty. Producer Mark Nevers, who may be hoping to pull off the kind of miracle that Rick Rubin did with Johnny Cash, pairs up Louvin with a host of other singers both well-known (George Jones on "Must You Throw Dirst in My Face," Elvis Costello on When I Stop Dreaming," Jeff Tweedy on "Great Atomic Power") and cult-favored (the lead singers of Clem Snide, Bright Eyes and Lambchop all step in as well).

These are all mostly inspired pairings -- especially "Grave on the Green Hillside," where powerhouse vocalists Tift Merritt and Joy Lynn White provide an added emotional boost -- but this is definitely Charlie's show; he sings in a voice that's weathered but not weary as he steps back into the songs from across his career with a wonderful ease.

There's also one new one, and it'll command the attention of anyone who loved the Louvin's earlier classics. It's called "Ira."

1 comment:

JAbel said...

I first heard of the Louvin Brothers on the excellent mid to late 70's albums of Emmylou Harris.They were usually my favorite songs on the albums though Pancho&Lefty and Beneath Still Waters edged them out on two albums as a favorite song.In the past ten years I've finally listened to some of the songs done by the Louvins themselves.