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 that record, 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 man beats his girlfriend with a stick until the ground flows with her blood; still another man "shivers when the cold wind blows" just thinking about the lover who is "on that train and gone." 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 were the closest anyone has ever come to actually simulating the pain of human loss and desire right there in the recording studio, you would probably be right. But you still wouldn't be doing them 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; the Gen Xers who slip into ironic detachment as easily as they breathe -- these songs sound quaint, silly, corny. They are appreciated as kitsch, if at all, and dismissed as sentimental. The Louvins also would have called them sentimental, of course, but they wouldn't have meant "mawkish" or "excessively romantic." They would just have meant "full of deep feeling" or, more to the point, "true." The Louvins knew that such songs simply recount the very stories that get told over and over, every day, in people's real lives. Broken hearts, loneliness, senseless death, and losses of innumerable variety will forever be among the things that evoke human emotions most passionately. Fittingly, the Louvins sang with an intense emotionalism that mirrored the way people actually experience such events. They called their album Tragic Songs of Life, but simply Songs of Life would have done just as well.
It's heartening then, if a bit surprising, that something of a Louvin Brothers renaissance appears to building. Last year Razor & Tie released When I Stop Dreaming, a swell secular-heavy, one-disc history of the duo; and late last year, in addition to Tragic Songs of Life, Capitol Nashville reissued two more Louvin longplayers: 1959's gospel classic Satan Is Real and 1960's A Tribute to the Delmore Brothers. Razor & Tie and Capitol plan to team up next fall to reissue another of the duo's albums, Country Christmas from 1961. 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 and western legends; they are among the finest artists of any genre to record in our century.
The Louvins were born Ira and Charlie Loudermilk in 1924 and 1927, respectively, in the Sand Mountain region of northern Alabama, just as the tragedy of the Great Depression was gearing up and just as country music's great tradition of brother duets was reaching its commercial and artistic zenith. At church Charlie and Ira 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 they almost literally had their doors blown off on the highway by Roy Acuff's touring car, 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 finding usually brief jobs on radio stations all over the South. They adopted Louvin as a stage name (for some reason they thought it'd be easier to pronounce than Loudermilk). They recorded a handful of sides for a few labels without much notice, and they even broke up once when Charlie joined the army in 1945. Mainly they just kept singing those tragic songs in those close, gorgeous harmonies, getting better at it every year and slowly developing a reputation as great singers and gifted writers, especially when it came to gospel material. You can't eat a reputation, though, and they were all but busted when Capitol producer Ken Nelson championed their cause, encouraging the Grand Ol' Opry to hire them and, eventually, Capitol to let them record.
Their first real popularity was with their version of old-time Southern gospel. Louvin 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 (with electric guitar courtesy of Chet Atkins) established the duo as successful sacred performers in the fervent Sand Mountain tradition. Their unique brand of reverent yet often judgmental gospel was all they recorded until they were able to persuade 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 is scared because he has dreamed his sweetheart has a new love) that it makes Roy Orbison look like the Dalai Lama.
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But Tragic Songs of Life, originally released in 1956, remains their greatest achievement. "Alabama" and "Kentucky" (and the brilliant electric picking of Paul Yandell) are bursting with love and home and human connection, the very things that will make the grim losses of the remaining cuts feel so tragic. The album practically drips with death, as well as other less viscous losses. It features the definitive versions of several traditional tunes that have now become country and bluegrass standards, most notably "In the Pines" and the horrifying, guilt-ridden first-person murder ballad "Knoxville Girl" (covered this year by both BR5-49 and the Lemonheads). Even in the pair's secular recordings, God's judgment seems to loom as a terrifying end.
So it's no surprise that the brothers never completely abandoned the sacred. Another new reissue, Satan Is Real, is nearly as strong as Tragic and is filled with the spirit; it is not quite so harsh as much of their earlier gospel. The joyous testifying on "There's a Higher Power" and "The River of Jordan" are examples of the jubilant Southern gospel tradition that, today, is fading away. The album's famous cover -- the brothers in white Sunday suits, hands outstretched, Charlie smiling and Ira looking more wracked, both standing in front of a twelve-foot plywood Satan and a fiery, rocky Hell that Ira made himself -- is a tableau that might be viewed as camp today. But one listen to the peace in the Louvins' harmonies on the nearly transcendental "He Can Be Found" or the tremendous relief in their "Satan's Jeweled Crown" reminds us that these boys weren't kidding around. Whether you take the sermon that Ira, a frustrated preacher, delivers on the title track ("It's sweet to know that God is real ... but Satan is real too, and Hell is a real place") to be literal, as he certainly intended, or to be a metaphor for human hubris and its resultant tragedies, you still know he meant every sanctified syllable.
The brothers must have had that sense of tragedy in their very bones, especially Ira. Charlie, tired of his brother's frequent fits of alcoholic fury (which over the years had 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), left Ira in an ugly 1963 split. He went on to have a fairly successful solo career throughout the Sixties, as well as a few hit duets with Melba Montgomery in the early Seventies. Ira, along with his fourth wife, died in a Missouri auto accident in 1965, a tragically predictable end for a man who had spent his life torn between the Word and the bottle.
Sadly, stories like Ira and Charlie Louvin's are played out every day. During the duo's too brief career, the Louvins sang about those tragic stories as intensely, passionately, and desperately as people feel them, all the while searching for peace. More than anything else, it's that universal quest for harmony in a disharmonious world that shone through when the Louvin Brothers 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 have to listen as earnestly as they sang. We have to remember that, like each of us at the end of the day, the Louvin Brothers were not kidding around.