The Louvin Brothers were country music's best-ever brother team, and when they titled their greatest album Tragic Songs of Life, they weren't kidding around. Over the course of the recording, a woman wanders "this wide world all over," leaving her abandoned lover to contemplate suicide; a man, rich beyond his dreams, sits alone in a mansion, longing for the wife and family he has never known; another "shivers when the cold wind blows," thinking about the lover who is "on that train and gone"; a man beats his girlfriend to death as she begs for mercy.
Ira and Charlie Louvin sang each of these songs in tenor harmonies so perfect that all the usual descriptions--yearning, aching, high and lonesome--are rendered insufficient. If you said these harmonies are the closest anyone has ever come to actually capturing the pain of human loss and desire in a recording studio, you would be right. But you still wouldn't do the Louvins justice.
Contemporary sensibilities struggle to understand such straightforward songs, especially ones sung so earnestly. To the generations born since the Louvins recorded--the baby boomers who mistook Dylan's significance to mean that great art is obscure and the Gen Xers who slip into ironic detachment as easily as they breathe--the brothers sound quaint, silly, even corny.
It's heartening, then, if a bit surprising, that a Louvin Brothers renaissance appears to be building. Early last year, Razor & Tie released When I Stop Dreaming, a fine one-disc history of the duo. And late last year, in addition to Tragic Songs of Life, Capitol Nashville reissued two more Louvin long-players: the 1959 gospel classic Satan Is Real and 1960's A Tribute to the Delmore Brothers. Razor & Tie and Capitol plan to team up in the fall to reissue another of the duo's albums, Country Christmas (1961). And, best of all, Charlie Louvin has just released The Longest Train, his first solo album in seven years. The time is right to reaffirm that the Louvin Brothers are not only country-western legends, but among the finest artists of any genre ever to record, period.
The Louvins were born Ira and Charlie Loudermilk in 1924 and 1927, respectively, in the Sand Mountain region of northern Alabama, just as the Great Depression was gearing up and country music's great tradition of brother duets was reaching its commercial and artistic zenith. At church Ira and Charlie sang and worshiped among tiny Pentecostal congregations filled with the laying on of hands and speaking in tongues. At home they huddled around the family radio, soaking up their favorite duets: the sweet, close harmonies of Bill and Earl Bolick (better known as the Blue Sky Boys), the forlorn Appalachian harmonies of Charlie and Bill Monroe and, most of all, the smooth harmonies and boogie songs of Alton and Rabon Delmore (themselves Sand Mountain natives).
Following in the tradition of their heroes, the Loudermilk boys taught themselves to pick and harmonize--Ira on mandolin and high-as-heaven tenor, Charlie on guitar and a tenor more down to Earth. But it wasn't until one day in 1940--when the brothers were working on the farm and saw Roy Acuff and His Smoky Mountain Boys' huge touring car roar by on a highway--that they vowed to make music their life's work.
Success was a long time coming. The brothers moved around a lot, performing here and there and taking brief jobs at radio stations all around the South. They adopted Louvin as a stage name (for some reason they thought it was easier to pronounce than Loudermilk) and recorded a handful of sides for a few labels without much notice. The brothers broke up for a while when Charlie joined the Army in 1945 and were all but busted when Capitol producer Ken Nelson championed their cause, encouraging the Grand Ole Opry to hire them and, eventually, Capitol to let them record.
Compositions such as "Broadminded" ("That word 'broadminded' is spelled 's-i-n'") and the minor-hit title track of their 1952 debut album The Family Who Prays established the Louvins as successful, sacred performers in the fervent Sand Mountain tradition. Their unique brand of reverent yet often judgmental old-time gospel was all the Louvins recorded until they persuaded Nelson to let them cut one of their own secular songs "When I Stop Dreaming," which became a Top 10 country hit in 1955. Other hits quickly followed, making the brothers one of the most loved acts of their day. The best of these secular country hits was probably "I Don't Believe You've Met My Baby," a song so painfully paranoid and anxious (the narrator dreamed his sweetheart has a new love) that it makes Roy Orbison sound like the Dalai Lama.
Tragic Songs of Life, originally released in 1956, remains the brothers' greatest achievement. "Alabama" and "Kentucky" (featuring the brilliant electric picking of Paul Yandell) burst with love and home and human connection, the very things that make the grimness of the remaining cuts feel so tragic. The album practically drips with death and other losses. It features the definitive versions of several traditional tunes that became country and bluegrass standards, most notably "In the Pines" and the horrifying, first-person murder ballad "Knoxville Girl" (covered this year by both BR5-49 and the Lemonheads).
The lyrics to that old-as-the-hills tune can chill the blood, especially because the brothers render the song in their usual, golden two-part harmony:
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"She fell down on her bended knees/For mercy she did cry, 'Oh, Willie dear, don't kill me here/I'm unprepared to die.' She never spoke another word, I only beat her more/Until the ground around me/Within her blood did flow/I took her by her golden curls, and I drug her 'round and 'round/Throwing her into the river that flows through Knoxville town/Go down, go down, you Knoxville girl/With the dark and rolling eyes/Go down, go down, you Knoxville girl/You can never be my bride."
Another new reissue, Satan Is Real, is nearly as strong as Tragic Songs of Life, if not quite so harsh. The joyous testifying on "There's a Higher Power" and "The River of Jordan" are examples of the jubilant Southern-gospel tradition that is currently fading away. The album's famous cover--the brothers in white Sunday suits, hands outstretched, both standing in front of a 12-foot plywood Satan and a fiery, rocky Hell that Ira made himself--is a tableau that might be viewed as camp today. But whether you take the sermon that Ira, a frustrated preacher, delivers on the title track to be literal, as he certainly intended, or as a metaphor for human hubris and its resultant tragedies, there's no question he meant every sanctified syllable.
The brothers certainly felt tragedy in their own bones, especially Ira. During the years, his frequent fits of alcoholic fury routinely cost them gigs, pushed him to physically attack Elvis and resulted in many smashed bones and mandolins, as well as the three bullets his third wife put in his back. Charlie finally left Ira in an ugly 1963 split and went on to a moderately successful solo career throughout the '60s, as well as a few hit duets with Melba Montgomery in the early '70s. Ira, along with his fourth wife, died in a Missouri auto accident in 1965--a tragically predictable end for a man who spent his life torn between the Word and the bottle.
During their too-brief career, the Louvin Brothers sang about such tragic stories just as intensely, passionately and desperately as people feel them, all the while searching for peace. More than anything else, it's that universal search for harmony in a disharmonious world that shone through when the Louvins joined their voices in song. If we want to know the full worth of their art, we have to fight past the reflexive postmodern desire to roll our eyes and hear fervency as some big joke; we should listen as earnestly as they sang and remember that, like each of us at the end of the day, the Louvin Brothers were not kidding around.