The passing of Charlie Louvin on January 26, 2011 robs country music of one of its most influential artists, a gifted vocalist, musician and songwriter who had been performing since 1940. Louvin was a living link to country music’s Appalachian traditions, a master of close harmonies and acoustic music who, with his brother Ira, kept the authentic sound of country’s roots alive at a time when the music was evolving into something else in the wake of the Nashville Sound and rock & roll, even as they brought a new energy and enthusiasm to their work. The Louvin Brothers made some of the most enduring, deeply moving country music ever committed to tape, full of stunning high harmonies and wrenching tales of sin and salvation, and even after they fell out of commercial favor and Ira’s passing split up the duo for good in the mid-'60s, Charlie Louvin never walked away from his craft, and released his final album less than three months before his passing.
The Louvin Brothers were one of the last great examples of the tradition of close harmony sibling acts in country. In the 1930s and ‘40s, The Delmore Brothers, The Stanley Brothers and The Monroe Brothers were all stars in what was then called hillbilly music, and Lonnie Ira Loudermilk (born 1924) and Charles Elzer Loudermilk (born 1927), two of seven kids born to a farming family in Alabama, were determined to follow in their footsteps. In 1940, while working in the fields, Charlie and Ira saw Roy Acuff drive by en route to a show in their hometown that evening, and as Charlie said years later, “When we saw Acuff pass by in his car that day, we knew what we wanted to do. It was just a matter of how to do it.”
That same year, Charlie and Ira began made their debut performing at a small town carnival. By 1942, the Loudermilk Brothers had moved to Tennessee and were performing as The Radio Kings. In 1947, they adopted the stage names Charlie Louvin and Ira Louvin, thinking the name would be easier to spell and pronounce; the brothers made their recording debut that year, releasing a single 78 on Apollo Records. The brothers’ fiercely traditional sound made commercial success an uphill battle at first, and they bounced between Knoxville, Memphis, Chattanooga and Nashville in search of paying gigs. It wasn’t until 1952 that the Louvins landed their big break; Ken Nelson, an A&R man at Capitol Records, signed them to a record deal, and their first single for the label, “The Family Who Prays,” was a minor hit that earned Charlie and Ira a royalty check for $596, a sum that seemed so improbably large they were afraid to take it to the bank.
Bigger success arrived in 1955, when The Louvin Brothers, who initially recorded only gospel material, bowed to pressure from Capitol and began writing and recording secular songs and enjoyed a major hit single with “When I Stop Dreaming.” If it was a compromise, it was one of the few in the Louvins’ career; their love songs were still the model of chaste propriety, and on their albums they continued to record unapologetic hard country and bluegrass gospel on concept albums such as Tragic Songs Of Life, Satan Is Real and A Tribute to the Delmore Brothers. And as the rise of the Countrypolitan sound brought a new sophistication to country music, The Louvin Brothers were a clear throwback to its hillbilly roots, firmly rooted in Ira’s mandolin, Charlie’s guitar and their ethereal high harmonies, among the most beautiful and expertly executed in Nashville. The Louvin Brothers also became frequent guests on the Grand Ole Opry, with their music reaching a large and loyal radio audience.
As beautiful as The Louvin Brothers sounded on stage and in the studio, their offstage lives were less harmonious. While Charlie was a sober, churchgoing man, Ira had a powerful temper and a drinking problem that made him wildly unpredictable and sometimes violent. In 1963, Charlie decided he’d had enough and struck out on his own as a solo act. The split became permanent in the summer of 1965, when Ira died in an auto accident. Charlie Louvin continued to record as a solo act and enjoyed a handful of hits, such as “I Don’t Love You Anymore” and “Less and Less,” but while The Louvin Brothers seemed a bit like an echo of an earlier era in the mid-'50s, by the late '60s Charlie’s hardcore acoustic country style had fallen out of favor. While he still made regular appearances on the Grand Ole Opry, after cutting an album for United Artists in 1974, Charlie recorded little besides a few small-label sessions until the album The Longest Train appeared on the Texas-based roots music label Watermelon Records in 1996.
If rock & roll helped make The Louvin Brothers seem anachronistic, it also helped revive their reputation years later. Country rock pioneer Gram Parsons was a major Louvin Brothers fan who cut “The Christian Life” with the Byrds and “Cash On The Barrelhead” on his final solo album. Years later, Uncle Tupelo and Southern Culture On The Skids were just two of the many band on the alt-country circuit who covered “The Great Atomic Power.” And a number of younger country acts raised on rock came to recognize both the beauty and the emotional force of the Louvin Brothers' songs, including Emmylou Harris and Marty Stuart. While most of these artists were sincerely moved by the Louvins’ music, a handful were drawn to the eccentric cover graphics to the album Satan Is Real and the curious tone of songs like “The Great Atomic Power” and “Broadminded.” If ever there was music that was thoroughly free of irony, however, it was The Louvin Brothers, and Charlie Louvin’s solo work was every bit was fiercely sincere and free of kitsch as the music he made with his brother.
In the '90s, The Louvin Brothers’ music became available again through CD reissues and as their influence was more widely acknowledged, Charlie Louvin enjoyed a career resurgence in his last years. Louvin had never stopped performing, but demand for his services increased, and in 2007 he teamed up with the independent roots music label Tompkins Square Records. Between 2007 and 2010, Louvin recorded three studio albums and two live discs for the label (the first, simply called Charlie Louvin, featured guest appearances from George Jones, Elvis Costello, Marty Stuart, Jeff Tweedy and Will Oldham), as well as touring the country, performing at the Bonnaroo Festival, and fielding interview requests where he spoke about his life and music with warmth and honesty. In November 2010, he released an album of patriotic songs, The Battle Rages On, even though he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and he intended to continue touring into 2011 before complications of the disease finally claimed him. On the album The Longest Train, Charlie Louvin sang a song called “I Wanna Die Young (At A Very Old Age).” Given the sprit, tenacity and strength he showed up to the very end of his days, one can reasonably say he lived up to that pledge.