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Livin', lovin', losin' the Louvins way

By Jon Johnson, October 2003

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"Livin', Lovin', Losin'" was produced by Nashville fixture Carl Jackson, who has a long track record as a songwriter, musician and producer, particularly with most of the acts who appear on the new record. Jackson also won a best bluegrass album Grammy in 1991 for "Spring Training," an album he recorded with John Starling.

"Kathy Louvin called me close to 2 years ago," says Jackson, 49, in a telephone conversation from his father's home in Mississippi, "And asked me if I thought it'd be a good idea and would I be willing to produce it. And I said 'Absolutely.' "

After snafus with another label, the project - which by this time had six or seven completed songs financed by Jackson himself - was then shopped to Universal South, who picked up the album.

"I took the Louvins' box set (a massive 8-CD collection released by Germany's Bear Family label in 1992) and listened through it a couple of times. I narrowed it down to between 40 and 50 songs that I really wanted to choose from. Then with each artist that came onboard I would send them four or five songs that I thought would work for their voice. For instance, I sent Vince (Gill) four or five songs - but I knew he was going to pick the shuffle ("I Can't Keep You in Love With Me," recorded with Terri Clark)."

The sessions for "Livin', Lovin', Losin'" resulted in one of Johnny Cash's last studio recordings before his death on Sept. 12th - a rendition of "Keep Your Eyes On Jesus" with Pam Tillis and the Jordanaires for which Cash provided a recitation similar to Ira Louvin's mini-sermons which sometimes appeared on the brothers' original recordings.

"I'm very proud of that. I knew Johnny. We weren't close friends or anything, but I'm close friends with his daughter-in-law (Laura) and John Carter, his son. I called Laura and asked her if she thought he might like to do it, and she said she would mention it to him. She did, and she gave me his number and said, 'Call him.' I called him, and he was excited to do it. He was a big fan of the Louvin Brothers. I told him I wanted to do a song with a recitation."

Given the choice between two songs with recitations - "Steal Away and Pray" and "Keep Your Eyes on Jesus" - Cash chose the latter, saying to Jackson, "That one's got a lot of meat on it."

"I took the track over to Cash Cabin, which is very near to where I live, and he came in and did it in a couple of passes."

"He was very frail," adds Jackson. "But so gracious. I'm very proud that he's on there."

"I enjoyed his part on there. I met John when he was 13 years old," says Charlie Louvin, who was only about 18 himself at the time. The barely-teenaged Cash had attended an early Louvin Brothers concert at a time when the Louvins were a well-known radio act in the area, but had not yet started recording and had spoken briefly with Charlie. "It was in his hometown. It was a few years after that before I realized that this was the little boy I'd met at a schoolhouse in Dyess, Ark."

"It just doesn't seem real to me," says an enthusiastic Pam Tillis - who sang lead vocals on Cash's track - from her home in Nashville. "You just tear up with gratitude for an opportunity like that. It's a blessing. It wasn't as much of a lead part as some of the others, but it's Johnny Cash on there, and I'm so cool with that! If you were making a movie and wanted a singing voice for God, you'd think of Johnny Cash."

"I've known Carl for years," says Tillis when asked about her initial involvement on the project. "When he first came to me and asked if I'd be interested I said, 'Are you kidding me?' When I was growing up, you were hearing (the Louvins) even when you didn't know you were hearing them."

Interestingly, Charlie Louvin was kept in the dark about the project until it was well underway. "I planned on it to be a bit of a surprise," says Jackson. "But Sonya Isaacs let the cat out of the bag."

"I heard about it accidentally one night," says Charlie Louvin. "I was just eating crackers (at an event), and Sonya Isaacs said she just came from recording with Dolly Parton on that tribute album. And I told her I had heard nothing about it. She realized she'd screwed up and said 'Whenever the right person that's supposed to tell you about this tells you, act surprised, or I'm in a bunch of trouble.' Then a week or so later, I talked to Carl Jackson (at Jim McReynolds' funeral), and he told me about it."

"From that point on he was very involved," continues Jackson. "He came down to the session when James and Alison did their parts."

So what would Ira Louvin have thought of the tribute album?Laughing, Kathy Louvin responds by saying, "That's kind of a funny question because you never knew how he was going to react to anything. Just when you'd think he'd be really excited about something, he'd get pissed off. And vice-versa. But I think that he would be overwhelmed at the recognition and respect because when he got killed he had not had that kind of respect for a little while publicly. Somewhere he's smiling about it."

"I know he would have been proud," says Charlie Louvin. "It couldn't have been done better."

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