Livin', lovin', losin' the Louvins way

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 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.

"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."

© Country Standard Time • Jeffrey B. Remz, editor & publisher •