Take a look at Charlie Louvin’s hands on the inside covers of his two new albums.
On “Steps to Heaven” - a return to the gospel inspirations, although not exactly the sounds, that began his storied career with brother Ira Louvin in the 1940s - his fingers file through the pages of a hymn book.
Sings Murder Ballads & Disaster Songs
(Tompkins Square; US: 9 Dec 2008; UK: Available as import)
Steps to Heaven
(Tompkins Square; US: 16 Sep 2008; UK: 16 Sep 2008)
(Tompkins Square; US: 20 Feb 2007; UK: Available as import)
On “Charlie Louvin Sings Murder Ballads and Disaster Songs” - a record that states its business succinctly and dramatically in its title - the singer’s hands cradle a pistol.
Love. Faith. Death. For more than 60 years, those themes have run wild in Louvin’s music. Now he is 81 and in the midst of a remarkable career renaissance, and those notions have never seemed so complementary to each other.
“That’s because they all talk about life,” Louvin said by phone from his Tennessee home.
“When Ira and I started out, people continually asked us, ‘How long do you think these songs will be used?’ I had to answer that we were simply trying to make a living. That was all that was on our minds. If a song didn’t do well, we would try to write a better one. And then try again.”
Gospel gave rise to secular music with the 1955 hit “When I Stop Dreaming.” More songs followed, featuring the brothers’ contrasting tenor vocals along with their versed command of roots-oriented folk, country and old-time music: “Great Atomic Power,” “Knoxville Girl” and “Must You Throw Dirt in My Face.” Gospel references were inescapable.
All of those songs were re-recorded for Charlie Louvin’s self-titled 2007 solo album. That recording paired the singer with contemporary songsmiths Elvis Costello, Will Oldham and Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, as well as a pack of country elders that included George Jones, Bobby Bare and Tom T. Hall.
Suddenly, Louvin’s music connected with an entirely new generation. He teamed on tour with artists as varied as Lucinda Williams and the band Cake. Then in summer 2007, just shy of his 80th birthday, Louvin performed as part of Bonnaroo, the massive outdoor festival outside Nashville.
“Of course, there are still a few old boys like me mixed in there,” Louvin said of the audiences that come to hear him today. “But mostly, I’m singing to grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the people Ira and I played to 60 years ago. It’s a real thrill to be able to stay around that long.”
Things do change, though. Take “Steps to Heaven,” for instance. Louvin devoted a considerable chunk of his early career to spiritual music, but he had never recorded with black gospel musicians until this album. Such a move provides “Steps to Heaven” a more traditional gospel sound - one built around piano and vocal harmonies - than the country roots-inclined music that he forged with his brother decades ago.
Two versions of the spiritual “There’s a Higher Power,” recorded 48 years apart, underscore such a contrast. The first, featured on the 1960 Louvin Brothers’ album “Satan Is Real” (the one with the unintentionally hysterical cover art of the brothers being poked by a giant cartoon cut-out devil), is so rhythmic and fueled so closely by the Louvins’ harmonies that you can hear how close the leap to country music was. But on “Steps to Heaven,” the song is soulful and sagelike, with Louvin’s singing blending with the churchy gospel support of the McCrary Sisters.
“Ira and I played gospel for about four years. Back then, gospel quartets had a piano and a piano only. The Louvin Brothers were considered a carnival act by those quartets because we played stringed instruments. We finally talked our record label (Capitol) into mixing in some of the other music we played on the road. Thank goodness that worked. ‘When I Stop Dreaming’ came out after that and changed our world.”
So what’s left for the man who has spent 60 years singing about love, faith and death? The blues, of course. Louvin said he would like to record a blues album. And given that Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Levon Helm has offered to make the project with him, the blues might hit Louvin sooner rather than later.
Or maybe not.
Louvin’s mood was anything but blue Feb. 8 at the Grammy Awards, where “Steps to Heaven” was nominated for best Southern, country or bluegrass gospel album. It lost to the Gaither Vocal Band, but Louvin was thrilled to be part of the fun.
“It was an honor to be nominated. Good people won. Didn’t hurt my feelings.”