INSURED BEYOND THE GRAVE
by James Calemine
The Louvin Brothers legendary songs transcend time. Born Ira (April 21, 1924) and Charlie (July 7, 1927) Loudermilk, the brothers were raised poor in Henagar, Alabama, and began singing gospel music early in their lives. A few years later they played mostly in Tennessee and Alabama. They changed their last name, and Charlie and Ira began recording in 1949. They cut records for Decca, MGM, and Capitol Records. Their music never strayed from a pure gospel-country path. Once heard, their harmonizing remains hard to forget. Their music dealt with grave matters of the soul…the perilous tightrope between light and dark.
In time, musicians such as Merle Haggard, Gram Parsons, Emmylou Harris, Johnny Cash, and Dolly Parton recorded Louvin Brothers songs. After a prodigious career, the brothers went their separate ways, and in 1965 Ira Louvin was killed in a car accident. Brother Charlie forged on, and dedicates a song on his latest CD to Ira.
Charlie Louvin’s last CD appeared a decade ago. His latest, self-titled, release due to hit streets on February 20, culls traditional tunes, cover songs, Louvin Brothers compositions, and new material. Special guests on the album include George Jones, Bobby Bare, Tom T.Hall, Jeff Tweedy, Marty Stuart, and Will Oldham.
This interview verifies Charlie Louvin’s immense kindness, grace, talent, and soul. He elucidates on his early musical inclinations, the Louvin Brothers career, Elvis Presley, Gram Parsons, Emmylou Harris, and his latest CD. Swampland.com presents this in-depth Charlie Louvin interview with deference and honor…
PART ONE: …Charlie elaborates on early musical aptitudes…Songwriting with his brother Ira…The Louvin Brothers early days in the business…
SWAMPLAND: What was your first instrument?
CHARLIE LOUVIN: I was up in years. I was like 16 before I ever touched an instrument. My brother Ira played the guitar and he could play Papa’s banjo a little bit, and we had a neighbor-boy, his name was Lonnie Justice, he’s gone now, but he played guitar. Everywhere we went we had Ira playing and Lonnie playing. I didn’t have to…
But you were singing then…
…That’s right…but it cut down on the luggage I had to carry. So, finally Lonnie got married and his wife didn’t like the music part of his life so Ira said to me one day, ‘You’re gonna have to play something. I’m gonna buy me a mandolin’. That’s the way the Blue Sky Boys (played)--the Delmore Brothers had a lead instrument and a flat top, and the Monroe Brothers were the same. He (Ira) said ‘I’m gonna buy me a mandolin and I’m gonna learn to play it. I’ll show you what chords I know on the guitar.’ That’s how I started. I was 16—I never did become what they call a “picker”, but I could stay with the best of them. If they did the picking—they call that seconding--‘I’ll second you’. I learned to appreciate the guitar. Ira and I did hundreds, probably thousands of shows—just with mandolin and guitar.
That’s a credit to your brother’s talent because mandolins aren’t so easy to learn or to play.
Yes, and it’s a terrible instrument to keep in tune. You’ve got those double strings. When your strings get about a week old they won’t match up. And you can’t tune the thing. Ira was a talented boy. When we were going to record the tribute to the Delmore Brothers—we truly admired the Delmore Brothers—we worked a couple of shows with them. Alton had a problem in the fact his brother Rabon was drinker. So, Rabon passed away. We went to Alton’s house in Huntsville, Alabama, to show him 12 songs we had chosen to do the tribute. We wanted him to be satisfied with those 12 songs. Did we leave out one of his favorites? We showed him what songs we were gonna do, and he was thrilled beyond words. He was thrilled beyond words. He said excuse me, and got up and walked in the other room and pulled out Rabon’s tenor guitar and brought it in there and handed it to Ira. He said, ‘I think you ought to play this on the tribute album.’ It still had the same strings on it that Rabon had put on it. So Ira removed the strings when we got home. He curled them up and didn’t kink them and submerged them in kerosene. He let them sit overnight. He took em out and cleaned em real good and then put them back on the guitar, and they sounded like a new set of strings. He didn’t tune it as a tenor guitar, as it should be tuned. We didn’t know what that was so Ira tuned it like the bottom four strings on a guitar. Like E, B, G, and D. He did—with very little rehearsal—he played the lead instrument you hear on the Tribute To the Delmore Brothers.
I’ve never heard of cleaning strings with kerosene.
It’s a very good cleaning agent. Good for a lot of things. My Mom used it. She’d take a spoonful of sugar and 6 or 8 drops of kerosene and you eat that real slow and you get rid of the croup. They’d use it when you stick a nail through your foot—Mom would pour a little kerosene on it and you’d go back out and play. I think there’s something in kerosene now that poisons you. Can’t use it like that now. You do a lot of things when you’re raised poor. You don’t run to the doctor every time you sneeze or get a cough.
How did you and your brother start writing songs?
The first song that we wrote was about a little girl I knew when I was seven years old. We were lucky. We didn’t know we were lucky then but my Daddy owned this little farm or at least he was buying it and everybody around us was sharecroppers. They would come in a mile or two from our house and they’d have some children and they’d rent the land for one year, and about the time you got to know them good they’d move away. So, the first song we wrote was “A Tiny Broken Heart”. Pretty close after that we wrote “Nellie Moved To Town”. Ira wrote a few lyrics and sent them off to get somebody to put a tune to it, and they’d always come back with an unacceptable tune. We learned we had to do our own melody…there would have been no other way for it to have gone. Ira was a gifted songwriter—or I dream it, and all you have to do is get up and put it on paper. When one comes that way I’m thankful for it.
read on to Part 2