Busted: Charlie Louvin

The legendary artist who influenced generations of musicians talks about God and country (music)


BH: A lot of these songs are about heaven. Is that something that you think about more as you grow older?

CL: Well, I actually have heard that all my life — that you better get things right before you leave here, because the world might end before the morning. That has always been possible, but so far I worry more about hell than I do heaven. If I was totally assured of heaven, there wouldn’t be no worry. As a kid growing up, I thought the bogeyman was like the front of the Satan is Real LP. I thought he had horns and a pitchfork and all that. That must not be the truth, because the other day I saw what I’m sure was the devil wearing a bikini on the beach. [Laughs.] So they come in all shapes and sizes today.

BH: So, a song like “There’s a Higher Power,” is it strange to sing that without your brother?

CL: It’s worse than strange. It’s almost impossible. That song and “Just Rehearsing,” I tried to teach the girls a syncopated harmony, which my brother and I did. All I had to say as a duet was “We are just, just rehearsing,” and he would hit the half beat or the off beat, and it would be “We are just, just, just rehearsing.” I could not teach them that! So we all said it at the same time. That didn’t feel right to me, but that’s the only way we could do it, so I went ahead and accepted that. But we had a good time on it, and when the CD was first released, we had the Opry allow us [to] bring in the pianist and the three girls, and we did two or three songs on the stage from the CD. They was very shocked and they got in touch with everybody. When the Opry paid them, they gave them $51 or $52 a piece, and that was the shock of their lives. They thought they were going to get $500 or $600 a piece to come up and sing, and they got a very low union scale. They called me and two or three other people saying, “What is this $51? Is this a down payment?” [Laughs.] But we had nothing to do with that. If you sing on the Opry, they have a scale for everything, from square dancing to backup singers and musicians and the artists themselves. It’s all different.

You could listen to [Ira Louvin’s] gospel songs and tell he was a believer. But how many of us know right from wrong but don’t do it the way it should be done? I think that’s the human part of us that we have so much trouble with.

BH: I see. I was also wondering, when your brother passed away, did your Christian faith help you get through that?

CL: Well… I think so. I’ll have to remind you, if you didn’t know this already, that we quit singing as a duet August the 18th, 1963. So I was a solo artist and already had a couple good records when he got killed on Father’s Day, June 20, 1965. We weren’t writing together at that time. It was quite a shock, yes, because I think that he was getting his ducks in a row. Most likely, we would have sung together again. But he was too good of a friend of Jack Daniels, and I didn’t know how to handle that. I’m a non-drinker. I don’t get mad at people when they drink, but if you think a good stiff drink will help you do your job better, you’ve got problems. You can’t do your job better after having a good drink, and if you feel like you have to have it, then you’ve got problems. That was the Louvin Brothers’ problem, us and so many others. The Wilburn Brothers, the Delmore Brothers, right on down the line. A brother team is hard to keep together, because brothers don’t like for the other brother to say: “You do this or else.” They don’t dig that at all. We tried to divide it up. I said I’d take care of the business end of it and let him take care of the music end of it. But it got tangled up together again, because on the stage he’d look at me and say, “What do you want to sing next?” I’d always have a title on the tip of my tongue, and I’d say the title of the song and say, “Let’s do this.” And, out loud, he’d say, “Why do you want to do that son of a bitch?” And I’d say, “Well, you asked me what I wanted to do, and I gave you a title!” It was very embarrassing, and I thought it was better if we weren’t together. Someone had to leave, and I’ll take the blame for that.

Jack White and The Raconteurs covering the Louvin Brothers’ “The Christian Life” live at the Leeds Festival 2006

BH: Was he mad at you for wanting to leave?

CL: No. He very often said when we were on the road, even when he was straight, “When I get off this trip, I’m going to quit this rotten business, and you can do what you want to do. You’ll probably get a job working at a service station.” That’s real morale building, you know. So this was said for a year and a half. Every time we’d go out, he’d get to drinking, and he’d put that on me. So one time we worked in Watseka, Illinois, on a Sunday, August the 18th, 1963, and he was preaching that on the way home, “This is absolutely it! I’m hanging it up.” So I went and made my peace with the Opry and the record label and the booking agent, and I took a ten-day vacation. When I got back, and he knew I was back in town, he called me on a Friday and said, “What time are we on the Opry tonight?” I said, “We are not on the Opry tonight. I’m on.” And he said, “Oh, you know that was just that old whiskey talking.” I said, “Well, in the last year and a half, that’s the only one that ever speaks for you, the bourbon. Sure enough, we won’t sing together again until things are different.” But he didn’t live long enough for things to get different. That was very tragic. He was an exceptionally talented man when it comes to woodcarving or writing a song or doing the pearl on an expensive instrument. He had lots of great things that he could have done if he could have just left that bottle alone.

BH: Were you still close with him at the time that he passed away?

CL: Well, I had five sisters, and they all still lived in Alabama, and when we broke up he moved back to Alabama. And my daddy gave him a piece of the old farm, and he built a house on it. My sisters told me that he wasn’t doing too good financially, so I did a free show, and we sang together in a little town just about where the farm was. We had a pretty decent crowd there, and I just gave him all of it. But right after he got killed, before anybody knew it, Jim Walters repo’d the home. They didn’t even have to put it in the paper. They just go the courthouse and announce it, and then it’s theirs. Before I even knew it, they had the house and the land. He wasn’t in good financial shape when he passed away. My wife and I had to bury him, both him and his wife. She got killed with him.

BH: Did he have a similar relationship to his faith as you did?

CL: Oh yeah. You could listen to his gospel songs and tell he was a believer. But how many of us know right from wrong but don’t do it the way it should be done? I think that’s the human part of us that we have so much trouble with.

I’ve been asked many times, “Did you think when you were writing and recording these songs that they would still be around 60 years later,” and I have to answer, “Lord, no.” Because the only thing we were trying to do was make a living.

BH: Back then, did you realize how much influence you had and how respected you were within the industry?

CL: No. I don’t know if that had caught on then. I’ve been asked many times, “Did you think when you were writing and recording these songs that they would still be around 60 years later,” and I have to answer, “Lord, no.” Because the only thing we were trying to do was make a living. And that took a lot of worry and a lot of time just to make a living. I don’t care how hot you were, and we were pretty warm in the middle 50s, but the most money we ever made was $1600 in one day. People like Webb Pierce had a lot of #1 songs, and that’s all they got. Today’s artist, if they have one hit record, if it makes it to number one, they’ll ask $25,000 for one day’s work. And it just goes up from there. We’ve got artists in the business — Tim McGraw and his wife [Faith Hill] — taking down $1,200,000 for one day. Nobody’s worth that. We don’t get what we’re worth in life. We get what we negotiate. [Laughs.] That’s the bad part of life. If you’re not a good negotiator, you might work a lot cheaper than another man works. You have to negotiate your wishes, and I never was too good at that anyway. I tell a man what I needed, and if he said it was too much, I’d say, “Well, you’re talking to the wrong person.” If it’s too much, we’re not mad at each other. We just can’t do business like that. I’m not expensive. I’m not contemplating something else to do, though. I’ve gone so far down this road that it’s all I know how to do.

Charlie singing “Great Atomic Power” live on TV, backed by country-rock band Blanche

BH: So you once toured with Elvis Presley?

CL: Elvis Presley opened a show for us on his first tour. So did Johnny Cash for two weeks. John opened the show, and Ira and I closed it. You never know who you’re talking to. The guy comes across to you like a squirrel or a nerd, and next thing you know, he’s the head of the biggest corporation in the world. You never know how people are going to turn out.

BH: Did you think Elvis was a special performer the first time you saw him?

CL: Yeah, I knew he was. But I thought he was a fad. My aunt is from Memphis, Tennessee, and when we would go to visit her, Ira would take Elvis’ mama the newest copy of our sacred album. So we went there one day, and we were standing on the front porch fixing to leave, and there were a bunch of people out on the road. And a woman older than my mother was on her knees, reaching under the rail fence to pull grass out of Elvis’ yard. I knew then that it wasn’t a fad, that he wasn’t just for young people. The older people loved Elvis as well. He was monstrous as far as an artist goes. And so was Cash. I met Johnny Cash when he was eight years old, and when he got into the business, he imitated some of the things he had seen us do in his hometown when he was eight. If you’re a Cash fan, you can read The Man in Black, and there’s about three pages in his book about when he met me and how he watched the show and the way we worked. He was a good man.

BH: Did you know he was going to be a special performer, too?

CL: Well… yeah. He went into the Navy, and when he came out, he was a grown man. He had that charisma. You can tell it when someone walks on stage. You can’t see it, but you can tell when someone has it when they walk on the stage. It lights up an audience.

BH: Well, it might be nice that you have a whole new generation of fans that are listening to your music.

CL: Right now I’m singing to the great-great grandchildren of the moms and dads that Ira and I sang to. It is quite rewarding.

BH: Ok, well, I think I probably took enough of your time now, Charlie.

CL: Well, I hope that you enjoyed it. If you’re down in Nashville, look us up, and come to see us. I’ll make you a cup a coffee or buy you one.