Charlie Louvin, of the legendary Louvin Brothers, is about to turn 80 and he’s just now getting to the release of a proper solo disc. In some minds, this album might seem like something commemorative, a re-recorded greatest hits album made in celebration of a great country singer’s career. And while there is clearly a wistful feel to these songs, this album is far too vital and alive to be passed off as some late-life cash in.
Much of the hype surrounding this album has dealt with all the album’s guest musicians, and there are a whole lot. There’s country legends George Jones, Bobby Bare Sr., and Tom T. Hall. Elvis Costello comes in to sing a verse. And then there’s a slew of younger musicians like Jeff Tweedy, Will Oldham, Clem Snide’s Eef Barzelay, and Lambchop’s Kurt Wagner among others. Of course, bringing in the young fellas to play with the elder statesman is nothing new. One need look no further than Johnny Cash’s American recordings to see him not only collaborating with younger, more current musicians, but even reworking some of their songs. Willie Nelson had Ryan Adams produce Songbird, and even used the Cardinals as his backing band.
It’s easy to see these guest spots as a stab at “indie cred”. But make no mistake about it, this is Charlie Louvin’s album, and all these guests play second fiddle to him. The collaborations work because they sound organic, like a handful of like-minded artists playing some of their favorite songs in a pretty loose, friendly atmosphere. None of the pairings here seem forced like, say, Johnny Cash and Fiona Apple. And the touches the younger players provide are slight. Jeff Tweedy’s vocals in the chorus of “Great Atomic Power” are nearly drowned out by a chorus of children. Kurt Wagner takes a verse in “Worried Man Blues” and his seemingly unmatchable voice slides nicely into the song.
The standouts on the record, it turns out, are the legends. Charlie and George Jones open the record with “Must You Throw Dirt in My Face”, and it is really stunning. The Bill Anderson penned tune is soft-spoken but heartbreaking. George and Charlie trade verses and harmonize and they show right off that they both still got the chops. They come back later on to sing Jimmie Rodgers’ “Waiting on a Train” and the result are no less amazing. These two songs, along with “Blues Stay Away From Me” sung with Bobby Bare Sr. and Tom T. Hall, anchor the album and give the younger singers something to aspire to.
Mark Nevers, another Lambchop member, produced the album and he stays away from any overly modern touches. The production is understated, allowing the solid backing band, and Charlie’s weathered but beautiful voice to carry the songs along. If there is a moment where the album pushes too hard, it could be with “When I Stop Dreaming”. Elvis Costello takes a verse here and emotes as he always does, and the performance is a solid one. The problem, though a minor one, is that all the other singing on the album, including Charlie’s, is more hushed and restrained, making Costello’s singing seem almost histrionic.
But that is a minor complaint, and it doesn’t take much away from the album. Eleven of the songs are covers or re-recordings. “The Christian Life” is still effective, throwing the listener back to the Louvin Brothers’ compelling 1960 album Satan is Real. Will Oldham seems the perfect fit to help sing the old Appalachian murder ballad “Knoxville Girl”. And the closer, “My Long Journey Home”, sung with Paul Burch, is a good old porch stomper. The song is needed emotional pick-me-up following the eleventh track, the only new song on the album, entitled “Ira”.
Charlie’s tribute to his brother, a notorious drunk who gave up the stuff only to be killed by a drunk driver in 1965, is in the end what makes this album essential. It is a touching, simple prayer offered to a brother now 40 years gone that manages to avoid being uncomfortably emotive or exploitative. Charlie doesn’t rely on the loss of a brother to carry a song, in fact he seems not to worry about who’s hearing it. This is a moment between him and Ira, and yet the song is solid enough that we don’t feel like voyeurs listening to it. When Charlie sings “Ira, I hear you still” it is simply stated, but one can hear the huge loss. The song also breaches the topic of Charlie’s own mortality, singing about seeing his brother some day soon, and that gives the song an unexpected complication. Charlie knows he’ll see Ira again when he dies, and that is what sustains him, and it is the tricky nature of those spiritual moments that have always made the Louvin Brothers’ songs more than proclamations of faith, but rather explorations and examinations of that faith that make for more universally inviting songs.
There isn’t an insincere moment to be found on this album. These songs are well-selected and well-executed. The guests here make not so much for a passing of the torch, but more a meeting of minds both young and old to play the music they love. Should Rick Rubin decide to take on another legend for a late-career resurrection, he’d do well to look at this record. It is free of gimmick and ploy, happy to make the songs Charlie and company love. And the results make for a must-have record. More importantly for Charlie Louvin, though, this is a record Ira would love.