Country Hall of Fame member Charlie Louvin may be older than the guests on his latest, self-titled CD, but he definitely was hip to collaborating with modern voices such as Elvis Costello, Jeff Tweedy and Will Oldham.
“I’m familiar with all of them’s music and appreciate them for calling it what it is,” Louvin says. “The only thing that really tees me off is when people record obvious rock `n’ roll music and call it country.”
(Tompkins Square; US: 20 Feb 2007; UK: Available as import)
Born in 1927, Louvin began singing with his older brother, Ira, while working the family farm in Alabama. The Louvin Brothers went on to join the Grand Ole Opry and land hits such as “When I Stop Dreaming,” “I Don’t Believe You’ve Met My Baby” and “Cash on the Barrelhead.” After recording together for a decade and a half, the two parted in 1963. Ira was killed in a car accident two years later. But Charlie continued to sing, finding solo success in the 1960s and becoming an inspiration for alt-country musicians today.
Fresh off a packed performance at South By Southwest last month, Louvin will teach the masses about country at the Bonnaroo Festival later this summer. A refresher course is certainly in order for anyone who’s been listening to so-called country radio deejays: “They’ve got the public so confused they wouldn’t know country if it straddled them in the road,” Louvin, 79, declares from his Tennessee home.
Q. Has country music lost its way?
A. I don’t think so. Everything is geared to the mighty dollar today. So they can make more dollars if they make it sound rock `n’ roll. But as far as country music changing and everything, I haven’t changed my style or my love for country music and never will.
Q. Music by the Louvins is often cited as an inspiration for modern, alternative country. Why do you think that is?
A. I don’t know! I guess because there ain’t no more like it. That might be the reason. I’ve tried several tenor singers, I can’t get by with singing Louvin Brothers songs in a duet form. I have to sing them in trio, and they don’t bug me. But it will bug me to death if I even attempt to duplicate a Louvin Brothers song with Ira-type harmonies. But there are no Iras out there, because I’ve tried a bunch of them. So I’ve just settled to the fact that I’ll do the Louvin Brothers songs to the best of my ability.
Q. The Louvins were doing songs with titles like “Satan is Real” back in the early `60s. Were you guys always a little bit eccentric?
A. No, no. I don’t call that eccentric at all. I just call that a morality check. A lot of the Louvin Brothers songs questioned your way of life - and maybe that was wrong. They call them songs that step on other people’s toes. I guess some of them did. But maybe it helped some of them, too, not just mashed their toes.
Q. You talked a little bit about deejays playing rock `n’ roll music today and calling it country. I notice on this new record, on the version of “Great Atomic Power,” there’s guitar feedback mixed in with traditional country instrumentation.
A. That was on purpose, my friend. I asked (engineer Mark Nevers) why he put that in there. He says, “To get people to talk.” He says, “They’re talking aren’t they?”
Q. How big of a deal is it for you to be in the Country Music Hall of Fame?
A. It’s a huge deal. There’s two things I’ll say most country artists strive for in their career. One of them is to be a member of the Opry. We made that in 1955, and in 2001 we made the Country Music Hall of Fame. It is a big deal. I get to do several shows during the year of Country Hall of Fame members only. Because there ain’t a whole lot of Hall of Famers that’s able to still work the road. And a lot of them passed on. We’ve got some new people in there: George Jones, Merle Haggard, Bill Anderson, people like that. But most of them, like Kitty Wells, she’s not able to travel. Hank Thompson travels very little.
It just seems like the old country sound is dying with the people who did it. We don’t have enough young people that got the guts about (`em ) to do the country music. They do whatever the A&R man says for them to do. And that’s unfortunate. But I think country music will always live. We’ve had bad times. We had a bad time after Elvis, and country music had a bad time after the Beatles. But it always comes back. And I think there’s a lot of stations today that’s playing classic country and alternative country.
Q. It’s funny they call real country “alternative” country now.
A. (Laughs) It seems like every time a new sound comes along we have to change our name. We go from hillbilly to country to classic to old-timey. I still do country, and I don’t brag about it on stage. I just do my music and hopefully you’ll like it. And if you don’t like it, and if I call it country over and over, I might turn you against country music altogether. So I just do whatever that I’m capable of doing. And so far, it’s allowed my wife to raise three boys and it’s kept the bills paid. So we hope it will continue to do that.
Q. You talked about how a lot of the Country Music Hall of Fame people can’t really take the road anymore. Unless I’m wrong, you’re going to turn the big 8-0 in July. How are you able to still hit the road like that?
A. (Sighs gratefully) I am blessed with good health. And I’ve got some boys in the band that’s a third my age, and I wear them out. Whether it’s driving, staying up 60 hours without any sleep, or anything that’s hard, I drive them through the ground. They can’t believe it. Sometimes I wonder where the energy comes from, but I’ve got it. So I’ve been given, I think, a beautiful chance to present the music to people that have never heard it before. And if I don’t do it, then that just means I’m lazy.
Q. Does it still feel like yesterday sometimes that you were out working in the fields on the farm in Alabama with Ira?
A. When I sing, I hear his part. If I sing a song that we sang together, I always hear his part in my head. So as long as I can do that, I can keep on dreaming and keep on singing. I plan on singing as long as I can stay on key. When I get to where I can’t stay on pitch, then I will quit. But that hasn’t happened yet, and hopefully it won’t for a while, so ...
Q. Come on, Charlie, they’ve got those new contraptions, those auto-tuners! They just fix that for you when you’re singing.
A. I would shoot a man that put Pro Tools on me. I can sing on pitch with the instruments, and I don’t need a Pro Tools.
Q. I heard a story that when you and Ira were touring, Elvis opened for you before he was popular in 1955.
A. It’s true. We worked 100 days with Elvis, and when Tom Parker first bought him, he’d never had a record that did anything and people didn’t really know what he was doing. My brother and I was hotter than a tater that year, so he needed somebody to put the people in the building so’s that Elvis could entertain them. And we were glad to get the work.
Q. You toured with Cheap Trick and Cake three or four years ago. Are you comfortable hanging out with rock bands or would you rather be with country musicians?
A. I love John McCrea with Cake. And before the tour was half over, I was singing a verse on “I’m a California Man” with Cheap Trick. They’re all nice guys. Every one of them. Their music is different from mine but that don’t mean that they’re not genuine people.