Charlie Louvin

Steps to Heaven

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In 2009, there are few if any more venerable figures in country music than Charlie Louvin, who was half of the Louvin Brothers, arguably the greatest harmony duo in the history of the music, with his late brother Ira. When the Louvin Brothers began recording for Capitol Records in the early 1950s, they focused strictly on spiritual material, and while the brothers were eventually persuaded to record secular country songs that earned them a number of hit records, they never walked away from their Christian roots, and some of their most powerful records dealt with issues of faith, including their legendary 1960 album Satan Is Real. Charlie Louvin is clearly no stranger to a great gospel song, but on Steps to Heaven he takes a fresh approach to the music. Steps to Heaven is what one might call an "integrated" gospel session; while Louvin is a student of white bluegrass gospel singing, producer Mark Neverson has paired him with a trio of African-American gospel vocalists (Alfreda McCrary Lee, Regina McCrary, and Ann McCrary) and a pianist (Derrick Lee) schooled in the traditions of the African-American church, fusing two traditions of American spiritual music in one recording session. And the results are moving and often sublime; at the age of 81, Louvin's voice isn't as supple as it once was, but despite the wear in his instrument he sings these classic gospel songs with a steely conviction that clearly comes from the heart and the soul, and his accompanists match him for the passion and gravity of their vocals. The sessions for Steps to Heaven were recorded live to tape in just two days, and Louvin and his partners suggest an easy familiarity with these songs, which they had likely been singing for years, and if Louvin doesn't bring the same swing to the melodies, this is clearly a musical meeting of true believers; even if you don't share their faith, it's impossible not to be moved by their sincerity and their belief in the spiritual healing this music brings to them. In a world where the divisions between "white music" and "black music" are clearer than ever in secular entertainment, Steps to Heaven demonstrates how little truly separated American Southern traditions of white and black gospel music, and how genuine faith can bring the two sides together; it's an album that's powerful in its simplicity and purity of heart, and it's a late career triumph for Charlie Louvin.

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