The calm low voice of country music's greatest duet has gone to meet his restless brother "in the air."
Singer, guitarist, and songwriter Charlie Louvin died January 26, at age 83. He outlived his musical partner Ira by 45 years, years of ever-widening acclaim for their stark songs and piercing harmonies.
The Louvin Brothers were country music’s most influential duet, and Charlie was the saner survivor.
The brothers grew up and first performed in the Sand Mountain region of northeast Alabama, at the southern tip of the Appalachian range. They absorbed the local mountain ballads and, particularly, sacred music, though like everyone else, the Loudermilk brothers (they simplified their stage name in 1947) were tuned into radio, soaking up C&W and the popular songs of the 1930s and ‘40s, too.
Older brother Ira took up the mandolin and taught Charlie to play the guitar. On their first gig for pay, Charlie told NPR, “We sang in the center of a flying Jenny….It was a sort of homemade merry-go-round and it was powered by mules.” Was it any wonder that young musicians like Gram Parsons, a druggy Harvard College dropout, and Emmylou Harris, fresh from the club circuit in Washington, D.C., were enthralled by the Louvins’ songs of brutality and retribution.
Are you ready
For the great atomic power?
Will you rise and meet your Savior in the air?
Will you shout or will you cry
When the fire rains from on high?
Are you ready for the great atomic power?
In their close harmonies, Charlie typically sang the lower melody. His voice, the milder of the two, sometimes takes on an almost powdery quality. Cutting over it like razor wire is Ira’s high tenor. Yet their brotherly kinship of phrasing, accent, and timbre makes the duets eerie, the dark and the light striving together.
After 15 years of scraping by, the Louvins landed a regular spot on the Grand Ole Opry in 1955 and scored their first recorded hit that same year, turning to secular songwriting with “When I Stop Dreaming.” Charlie would collect phrases and ideas, but he credits Ira with unleashing both the music and lyrics. Among their best known collaborations are “Cash on the Barrel Head,” “The Family Who Prays” and “If I Could Only Win Your Love,” Emmylou Harris’s first hit record.
It was a fairly pre-psychiatric era (at least for country musicians): the early 1960s. Ira’s thinking became erratic and his behavior increasingly violent. His drinking escalated and his performances swung from unreliable to outright destructive. Suddenly enraged, he would smash his mandolin on stage (This was also pre-Pete Townsend).
“I just didn’t know how to handle a drinker. So that’s what finally broke the team up,” Charlie said many years later. “Half of the duet can’t carry the show. I don’t care how hard you work. You can’t do both of the parts.”
They split up as performers in 1963 and two years later Ira and his fourth wife died in a car wreck near Williamsburg, Missouri. Charlie continued writing, recording and performing steadily: “he racked up a total of 30 hit singles,” through the late ‘60s and ‘70s, writes country music historian Michael Earlewine, “though most of the records didn’t make the Top 40.”
Charlie Louvin sings the Louvin Brothers’ “Love and Wealth” on Nashville Now (c. 1987) with Emmylou Harris and Vern Goslin.
To the end Charlie Louvin seems to have been both grateful and mildly perplexed by the Louvin Brothers’ ardent following. Speaking of their big hit “Knoxville Girl,” told by a fellow who bludgeons his girlfriend to death one afternoon on a whim, drags her “’round and ’round,” and throws her in the river, Charlie admitted, “I don’t know what it is about the “Knoxville Girl” that the public likes because it is…,” he paused, “an extremely morbid song.” Gird up and listen youself.
For country music afficionados, and perhaps even more so for those beyond its fringes, the Louvins’ music was something exotic, a weird symmetry of the wretched and the blithe. Ira and Charlie irradiated country’s old themes of piety and remorse, inspiring two more generations, already, of punkers and nouveau balladeers. This wasn’t just country music, but a brew of beauty, pain and camp.