Several years ago, a childhood hero hawked autographs during an old-timers game. Watching a once larger-than-life figure reduced to scrawling his name on penny cards for $20 was distressing, but the money was paid to a man who - it appeared - had no room in his life for false pride. The message was clear: he was doing what he needed to do.
That experience came back while listening to "The Battle Rages On," the latest from Country Hall of Fame and Grand Ole Opry member Charlie Louvin. Louvin's voice has not been strong for many years, and most recent recordings feature Louvin singing in barely more than a speaking voice. Here, the once smooth and striking voice is ravaged haggard and frequently flat.
And despite the shortcomings, the release has much to recommend it. A collection of songs of war and reflection, half of which were previously recorded by the Louvins on 1962's "Weapon of Prayer," the recording is very much of another day and age. Ranging from the Civil War (Just Before the Battle Mother) and from the wars of the last century, the only allowance to the present is the adaptation of the lyrics of Smoke on the Water to include Bin Laden and Hussein references.
Del McCoury duets on Weapon of Prayer, bringing intense vocal brightness to what is a fairly dark collection. The instrumentation is 'bluegrass clean'; instrument separation is apparent and supportive of the vocals. Deanie Richardson and David Russell both appear on fiddle and mandolin, and their collective contributions are important to the sound, as is Mitchell Brown's bass work.
Labeled as Louvin's "heartfelt love letter" to those in military service, one doesn't challenge the intent. Still, had more contemporary considerations from the likes of Slaid Cleaves (Green Mountains and Me, perhaps) or Mark Erelli (Shadowland or Volunteers) been included to bridge the past and the present, the effect of "The Battle Rages On" may have been intensified.
These are timeless songs, occasionally over-reaching, but emotionally impactful. Louvin's voice, on initial listen, is hard to appreciate. With repeated listening, the lingering impact and mastery of a once devastating vocalist becomes apparent and increasingly appreciated.
With "The Battle Rages On" Charlie Louvin is doing what he needs to do. Without taking a stand of current world events and using songs from a previous time to reflect modern realities, Louvin and producer Brown force listeners to make their own connections.