Ira Louvin died in a car crash in Missouri on June 20, 1965.
"Steps to Heaven" is different from Louvin's 2007 debut for Tompkins Square in tone as well as theme. Well connected producer Nevers brought in a wide variety of guests to appear on Louvin's sessions last year, including Elvis Costello, Wilco's Jeff Tweedy, Bobby Bare Sr., George Jones and Marty Stuart, among others. Given the hymnal foundation of the new album, the idea was to keep the proceedings as low key as possible.
Unlike the first album, Louvin himself compiled the set list suggestions. After recording 13 songs - including a pair of Louvin Brothers classics, There's a Higher Power and Just Rehearsing - Rosenthal concluded that three of them covered similar sonic territory and dropped them from the finished album. In addition, Nevers decided to augment a few of the vocals-and-piano numbers with a touch of doghouse bass and electric guitar courtesy of Chris Scruggs. The resulting work is a powerhouse of classic gospel.
"The first song on the album is an old sacred harp song; it might have been the first song I ever heard," says Louvin of Love at Home." "My mama's mother was a Haynes, and they have the Haynes reunion in Dutton, Ala. each year - and I still go to it - and they sing nothing but sacred harp shape note music. They don't even have a piano in the church where they sing. You have one guy that gets up, and whether it's in sharps or flats, he runs the scale and arrives at the pitch that the song is written for, and he hums it and everybody in the congregation sings the notes one time through, and then they sing the lyric. That's where the Louvin Brothers sound came from. They have harmony parts that the world hadn't heard unless they'd heard sacred harp people do them."
Between the sound of sacred harp singing and the abiding love and respect for their church, the Louvins' path to gospel in the '50s was nearly a foregone conclusion. It was their God-given talent that allowed them to reshape the genre. "We was raised in a good home," says Louvin. "Regardless of what you did on Saturday night, you didn't have to ask, 'Are we going to church tomorrow?' You knew you were. We were never sent to church, we were always carried to church. I think it makes a world of difference to a child. It gives them values they couldn't get no place else."
Another highlight on "Steps to Heaven" is the standard Precious Lord, Take My Hand. By coincidence, the hymn's writer, Thomas Darcy, was inducted into the Songwriter's Hall of Fame in 1979 on the same night that the Louvin Brothers were honored. That night, Darcy told Louvin the tragic story of how he came to write the song, and it's a story that Louvin tells onstage before he sings it.
"Thomas Darcy was a preacher in Memphis, Tenn.," says Louvin. "He'd obligated himself to preach a revival in St. Louis, but his wife was so pregnant that he was afraid to leave and afraid it would happen. The doctor assured him, 'It'll be two weeks after you get back before this child comes.' So he believed the doctor, as he should have, I guess. The night of the revival, he was in the pulpit fixing to preach and somebody handed him a note that said, 'We lost the mother, we saved the child.' He wrote the song on the way home."
The night of the induction, Louvin asked Darcy about the song, and knowing the lyrics and the emotion of it so well, wondered if Darcy had actually contemplated suicide. "I said, 'You thought about ending your life, didn't you Thomas?' and he said, 'I'm a man of the Lord, I could never do anything like that,'" says Louvin. 'I said, 'But you wrote it in the song, you had to think it.' If you're familiar with the song, in the third verse, it says, 'By the river I stand, guide my feet, hold my hand.' That was when he contemplated leaving this world. He said, 'I did think of it, but I didn't do it, that's the important thing.' If you look in the hymnals you'll see a lot of songs by Thomas Darcy, but that one's a jewel."
The flip side of "Steps to Heaven" comes in early December when Tompkins Square drops "Charlie Louvin Sings Murder Ballads and Disaster Songs." "I included some things that I hard back when Ira and I was together; I recorded Tom Dooley, Wreck of the Old 97, Darling Corey and It Was Said When That Old Canoe Went Down, which was about the Titanic," says Louvin. "They didn't all get the trigger pulled on them. You don't have to shoot a man to kill him. Sometimes words can kill as fast as a gun. They're all tragic songs."
One song holds a personal meaning for Louvin. "I even recorded one the most disastrous songs I ever heard in my life; Roy Acuff's Wreck on the Highway," says Louvin. "When they start talking about the whiskey and blood and glass running together, that's tragic. If a man gets behind the steering wheel drunk, he should be charged with attempted murder. That steering wheel in his hands can wipe a family out in a split second."
Even by Charlie Louvin's amazing yardstick (gospel success in the '50s, country success in the '60s, a resurrection in the '70s through the adoration and patronage of Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris), the past couple of years have been incredible. Louvin has opened for Lucinda Williams, the Detroit Cobras, Cake and Cheap Trick; he just concluded a tour with the Old 97s - and survived a recent accident when a driver lost control and rammed his RV - and is currently pondering offers to take his gospel album on the road.
Although the volume of some of the rock shows he's opened has been slightly disconcerting, Louvin is appreciative of all the attention he's received lately from across the musical spectrum. "It's been a great experience for me," says Louvin humbly. "I'm blessed with good health, and if I don't get out there while I've still got my health and can sing on key, then I'm lazy, and Lord knows I'm not that."