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Louvin returns to the silver platter

By Jon Johnson, December 1996

Consider a world in which the Louvin Brothers hadn't existed. Try picturing the Everly Brothers without their having first been exposed to Ira and Charlie Louvin's seemingly effortless harmonies. Then try picturing the Beatles without having the Everlys serving as inspiration for their own harmonies.

Or try to imagine the career of Gram Parsons without having convinced The Byrds to try recording "The Christian Life," or if he hadn't had the Louvins to serve as a model for the close harmony singing that he and Emmylou Harris later perfected in the early seventies, including their own rendition of the Louvins' "Cash On the Barrelhead."

Charlie Louvin and his late brother Ira (who, with his wife Anne, was killed in a 1965 Missouri car wreck) changed the world of music - that much needs to be understood early on.

Whether directly or indirectly, almost everyone has been exposed to the Louvin Brothers' influence on rock, pop, country...and even soul, thanks to Ray Charles' rendition of the Louvins' 1955 hit, "When I Stop Dreaming."

The past couple of years, in particular, have seen a flurry of Louvin-related activity. In 1995, rocker/musical archivist Marshall Crenshaw and the New York-based Razor & Tie label issued a superb 24-song collection of the Louvins' 1956-1963 Capitol recordings, "When I Stop Dreaming: The Best of the Louvin Brothers."

This past summer, Capitol finally got around to re-issuing three of the most-requested classic Louvin Brothers albums.

This month will see the publication of Charles Wolfe's "In Close Harmony: The Story of the Louvin Brothers" through the University Press of Mississippi.

And Charlie Louvin has a new album out, his first since a 1990 album with Roy Acuff, "Precious Jewel."

Released in September on the Austin-based Watermelon label, "The Longest Train" sees Louvin dividing his time between new renditions of old Louvin Brothers favorites such as "In the Pines" and "My Baby's Gone," among others, and newer material, such as producer (and labelmate) Julian Dawson's "Stone-Deaf, Dumb, and Blind," Helen Hudson's "I Wanna Die Young (at a Very Old Age)," and the late Sandy Denny's 1967 ode to aging, "Who Knows Where the Time Goes."

"He (Julian Dawson) came up with Sandy Denny," said Louvin in a day-after-Thanksgiving telephone interview from his home in Wartrace, Tenn.

"He sent me the Judy Collins version of that, and I couldn't make out what the words were. And I called him and I said, 'Julian, I need the words on this song before I can really learn it.' And finally, when he came to town to do the session, he brought the words with him. So they wanted to do the track that day and I just wasn't familiar enough with the tune. So I said, "Fine, you go ahead and do the track. Here's the words - now you sing it and let me take this copy home tonight and study it and see what I can come up with tomorrow.'"

Dawson and Louvin met in 1988 at a folk festival in Great Britain. "We introduced ourselves to each other and he said, 'What label are you working with?' And I said, 'I don't have a label. I'm just sick of playing the game.' And he said, 'Well, I think that's sinful.' Which was a nice remark on his part. He said, 'If I could get a label that would record you and pay you to record, and had distribution, would you let me produce it?'"

"I thought that he had bit off a very big chew there that he couldn't possibly fulfill, and I said, 'Why, sure,' not knowing anything about his skills, other than I had just watched him perform. And finally one day he told me, 'I've got you a deal with Watermelon Records."

"The Longest Train" also features appearances by admirers of Louvin's work, including Barry and Holly Tashian, Rosie Flores, Jim Lauderdale, Katy Moffatt and the Burns Sisters.

Louvin's voice has changed noticably over the years, mellowing in the process, but retaining its range and control. Louvin has even been giving some thought to his next solo album, which he envisions to be primarily an acoustic album.

Louvin has been a solo artist for a considerably longer period of time than he was a member of country music's most successful and influential brother duo. Since the Louvins' 1963 break-up, Charlie Louvin has recorded more than two dozen solo albums and today, at the age of 69, serves as a kind of elder statesman; one whose recordings - particularly those with Ira - provide an important connection to country music's earlier days for fans around the world, many of whom weren't even alive when the Louvin Brothers' final album, "Thank God For My Christian Home," was recorded in late 1963.

A songwriter's night appearance at Manhattan's Bottom Line in November gave New York fans a rare opportunity to see Charlie Louvin perform locally.

"It went great. I was requested to do four songs that I had written or had something to do with writing, and one song that I didn't write that I liked. I was shocked to the bottom of my boots on (the number of) Louvin fans that were in the audience that night."

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