One of country music’s great survivors, Charlie Louvin has a career that reads like a Southern gothic novel. He grew up singing sacred harp music — a harmonically complex form of Southern congregational music — with his brother Ira, and the duo would help lay the foundation for the country-rock movement with their close harmonies and stark tales of faith, family, and death. Among their early fans were a young Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash. Both would later open for the brothers, and carry their influence around the world.
The Louvin Brothers’ story was soon shrouded in the same kind of tragedy that hung around the corners of their songs when, after years of alcoholism and erratic behavior, Ira died in a car wreck in 1965. His duet partner gone, Charlie was left to spend the rest of his career hearing his brother’s harmonies echoing through his head.
In the mid-1970s, a generation of bluegrass and country artists stretching from Emmylou Harris to Ricky Skaggs regularly paid tribute with Louvin Brothers covers, and Charlie was hip again. Some lean years and overlooked releases followed, but by the turn of the new century, Charlie was the patron saint of the alternative country movement — Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, Elvis Costello, and George Jones all turned up to sing with him on his 2007 self-titled return. Now, as he progresses through his 80s, it’s fitting that he has returned to where he began nearly 60 years ago, with an album of songs from the hymnals of his youth, the Grammy-nominated Steps to Heaven. Humble and happy to talk to whoever wishes to phone him, Charlie is making sure he takes time to enjoy the latest chapter in his remarkable story.
Busted Halo: So I saw your Steps to Heaven record got a Grammy nomination. Was that your first Grammy nomination?
Charlie Louvin: No. I had one in 1964 when I first became a solo artist. And in 1968 me and Melba Montgomery got one, and then I had one in 2007. But I’ve never won. It’s quite an honor to be in the top 5 out of eight or ten thousand.
BH: What was it like working on the Steps to Heaven record?
CL: It was a whole lot of fun. I worked on it with three girls that were sisters and a piano player. When I recorded it, that was all there was on it, so they added some more music to it. I got to do some songs that I grew up with, some of the old gospel music.
BH: How’d you go about picking the songs for it?
CL: It wasn’t hard. I put two Louvin Brothers songs on it – “There’s a Higher Power” and “Just Rehearsing.” The rest of them was songs that was in the hymnal books when I was a kid growing up. One of the songs, “Love at Home,” is an old sacred harp song, one that they sing without tempo. So we put a little tempo to it and did it. But it was a lot of fun. We did it in two sessions in two days, just one session each day. We didn’t work the full three hours, just two and a half hours. I think we could have cut them all in one day, but the girls were getting a little tired, so we waited until the next day.
BH: Speaking of “Love at Home” being a sacred harp song, did you grow up with sacred harp singing?
CL: I did. In Alabama, where I was raised, that was the thing. There was an awful lot of that, and my brother was a really good sacred harp singer. My brother and I never learned music. We didn’t go to singing school and learn how to sing the notes. But we used a lot of the harmonies that were used in the sacred harp. That’s where the Louvin Brothers style came from.
BH: Have you gone to churches that sing in that style recently?
CL: No. I go to a reunion every year, and the last time I went was last year, and it was the 114th year that they’ve had it. My mother, her mother was a Haynes, and it was the Haynes reunion. And each year they have it, they say, “We’ll see you the next fifth after the 4th.” That’s how they identify it. It’s the first fifth Sunday after the 4th of July. I go every year if it’s possible, just to renew my love for that stuff.
BH: Was that the first kind of music that you ever sang?
CL: Well, the first kind of music we sang, of course, was hillbilly. And people didn’t like the name “hillbilly,” so they named it “country,” and then they named it “town and country,” and then “classic” and “old-timey.” And every time a new fad came out, we had to change the name of our music. But I still do what I’ve always done, country music.
BH: Was church music the first kind of music that you sang growing up?
CL: No. When we were growing up as kids, we did not sing, except at this reunion. They would call my mother up, and all of her children had to go up with her and sing two of her favorite songs. But that’s about as much church singing as we did. We went to church, but we didn’t sing in the choir, unless everyone in the church sang. We might help out then. We were careful not to speak out.
When we got a recording contract with Capitol, they wanted us to be a gospel duet. They said, “If you want to sing gospel music, we’ll sign you.” Well, we needed a contract, so we signed on, and in 1952, ’53, ’54 and two-thirds of ’55 we did nothing but gospel. And in the middle of ’55, we recorded “When I Stop Dreaming.” From then on, we mixed our music, one gospel LP and then a secular LP. But, myself, I haven’t cut a whole lot of gospel music. I’ve cut [for] a couple of indie labels, where only me and musicians and the guy who owned the label knew it was done. And now I’ve done one for Tompkins Square.
BH: So, back in the ’50s, when you started doing secular music in addition to gospel music, what did your fans think?
CL: Well, we didn’t get no feedback. Capitol Records was afraid that the people who liked gospel music, if we started singing secular music, that they’d stop buying the gospel. But that didn’t happen. We didn’t do no dirty songs. If you were a disc jockey, if you got a new Louvin Brothers record — or Charlie Louvin record today — you could put the needle to it and play it right then without worrying about it being dirty. We never recorded any smutty stuff, and I think that helped our career a lot. If you have to audition all your music before you play it, you’re going to spend a lot of time at the radio station before you go on the air. I just think there’s no place for smut in country music. You’ll hear some of it in the rap or the hard rock, but not in country.
Do you have a copy of the record?
BH: Oh, yeah. I do.
CL: Would you say that there’s one song that you like more than the others?
BH: Well, I really love your version of “Where We’ll Never Grow Old.”
CL: That’s a grand thought! [Laughs.] Well, the one song that I’ve known most of my life is “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.” That is in most hymnals of old. They’ve got new hymnbooks now, and most of them just have three-word songs. They call them “praise songs.” But that was written by a black preacher by the name of Dorsey Thomas [Thomas A. Dorsey], and if you owned any of the old hymnbooks, you could look through and see he wrote several songs. But he wrote this song on the way home from a very unbelievable experience that he had. He lived in Memphis, Tennessee, and he obligated himself to go to St. Louis, Missouri, to preach a revival. And his wife was very pregnant, and he didn’t want to be gone when [the birth] happened. So somebody said, “Well, Dorsey, why don’t you go to your doctor, and he could tell you exactly which day?” So he did that, and his doctor said, “Oh, don’t you worry about it. You go ahead and do your revival, and after that it will still be two weeks until your baby comes.” So he believed the doctor, and he went on to St. Louis. The night the revival started, he was in the pulpit ready to preach, and someone came up and handed him a note. And the note said, “We lost the mother, but we saved the child.” So he wrote “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.” Knowing that story, the song means a lot more to me than it did before. It’s a wonder he didn’t commit suicide. I guess I would have, but he didn’t.
But all the songs [on the album] are possible and truthful. I don’t get any kick out singing a song that’s humanly impossible, but I try to convince the listener that it is possible. I don’t like those kind of songs. I like for it to have a good beginning and a good ending, for it to be possible. Like “Where We’ll Never Grow Old.” That tells a story. I’m 81, so I can talk to the old folk.