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Livin', lovin', losin' the Louvins way

By Jon Johnson, October 2003

Country music has often seemed like a family business since its earliest days. The Carter Family, the Delmore Brothers, the Wilburn Brothers, Jim and Jesse, Bill and Charlie Monroe, the Browns and even modern superstar acts like Alabama have all been family affairs.

Few family acts have been as influential as the Louvin Brothers, however. Between 1955 (when they began recording secular material) and their breakup in 1963, Ira and Charlie Louvin scored a dozen top 40 country hits; still covered to this day by contemporary acts with even a passing interest in the roots of country music, perhaps most notably on "Livin', Lovin', Losin': Songs of the Louvin Brothers."

Released in late September on Universal South, the album features a star-studded cast of performers covering a total of 16 Louvin Brothers songs. Pairings include Marty Stuart and Del McCoury on "Let Us Travel, Travel On," Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell on "My Baby's Gone," James Taylor and Alison Krauss on "How's the World Treating You" and Joe Nichols and Rhonda Vincent on "Cash on the Barrelhead."

Hailing from Sand Mountain, Ala., the brothers began their show business career in 1942 while still in their teens, cutting their first records for Decca in 1949 for a primarily gospel audience and moving to Capitol soon afterwards.

Of the two brothers, Charlie - the youngest - was the more stable. Ira Louvin was, to say the least, a complex individual. A songwriter, mandolinist, cartoonist, luthier, biblical scholar and problem drinker, he was also - along with Bill Monroe - the greatest high tenor vocalist in the history of country music.

When sober, Ira Louvin was by all accounts a kind, generous, creative and considerate man. When drunk he...well, he wasn't any of those things, regularly smashing his mandolins into kindling in drunken rages and, perhaps most famously, coming close to beating up a young Elvis Presley when Elvis and the Louvins were sharing a bill in the mid-'50s.

"Daddy was a bit of a tormented soul," says Ira's daughter, Kathy Louvin, who was seven when he died and sings "I Wish You Knew" on the album with Pamela Brown Hayes. "He had these intense dreams. I remember he would get up at night and draw what he'd dreamed. He would often dream of seven-headed monsters and proverbial hellfire and brimstone."

"He had so much music inside of him, and his passion was so enormous," continues Louvin. "(But) it's no secret that daddy was an alcoholic. He was this kid from Sand Mountain, Ala. He was making money hand over fist, he was popular...life in the fast lane got hold of him. It really affected his relationships with his family and his peers."

Finally, in 1963, Charlie had had enough of Ira's behavior and pulled the plug on the act. After going their separate ways, the brothers began solo careers. For his part, Charlie scored a total of 16 country hits between 1964 and 1974, still records occasionally to this day and has just been on the road with Cheap Trick and Cake as a featured act on the Unlimited Sunshine tour.

"It's about like being at home and cutting the grass," says Louvin, 76, of the tour. "It gets pretty tiring after a while, but we're doing fine. At first, I was apprehensive about it, but the reception has been as good as you could ever dream of. In fact, it's better than it would be from a country audience. I do one song that's mine - 'See the Big Man Cry' (a top 10 hit for Louvin in 1965) - and then I'm doing 5 or 6 songs that Ira and I did. I don't know what Ira would have thought about the trip I'm on now, but there are a lot of young people out here who are very, very familiar with country music."

Ira Louvin never really had a chance to establish a separate career for himself, spending his brief post-Louvin Brothers years building musical instruments for Sho-Bud, preaching a little and cutting a solo album (issued shortly after his death as "The Unforgettable Ira Louvin" and reissued three years ago by the King label) before he was killed in an auto accident in 1965 at the age of 41 along with his wife.

Yet their influence remained. At the time of the Louvins' breakup, the Everly Brothers - whose close harmonies were a direct offshoot of the Louvins' approach - were still an important act in the pop world.

And a Harvard dropout named Gram Parsons proved to be one of the Louvins' greatest boosters; first convincing the über-hip Byrds to cover "The Christian Life" on 1968's influential "Sweetheart of the Rodeo," then covering "Cash on the Barrelhead" on his second (and posthumous) solo album, 1973's "Grievous Angel."

Following his departure from the Flying Burrito Brothers, Parsons indoctrinated his new musical partner Emmylou Harris in a crash course in the Louvin catalog. After his death, her first solo hit was a cover of "If I Could Only Win Your Love" in 1975. By the time Uncle Tupelo and Southern Culture on the Skids were covering "The Great Atomic Power" in the early '90s, the legend was secure and had long been so, in fact.

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