The Louvin Brothers—Charlie and Ira—area rightly considered one of the great duos in country music history. From their remarkable harmonies and musicianship to the surprising breadth of their songwriting, the brothers have been responsible for a lot of records being sold.
Their songs veer from heartache to humor, from the rough-and-tumble of life to the high-borne spirituality of gospel music, all driven by a tightly constructed musical engine—the country song. Keyed by what David Vinopal on All Music Guide (http://www.allmusicguide.com) describes as “Ira’s incredibly high, pure tenor and Charlie’s emotional and smooth melody tenor” and the interplay of their Ira’s mandolin and Charlie’s guitar, the brothers wrote and recorded some of the most raw and vulnerable country tunes on record.
“The worst that I’ve ever been hurt in my life / The first time I ever wanted to die / Was the night when you told me you loved someone new / And asked me if I could forget”, they sing on “When I Stop Dreaming”. And on “Must You Throw Dirt in My Face”, the duo crafts a doubly painful bit of heartbreak that has a finely tuned salt-in-the-wound pathos.
The Louvin Brothers themselves recorded six top 10 singles—including “I Don’t Believe You’ve Met My Baby”, which hit number 1 on the Billboard country charts in 1956—and six others that charted in the top 40. They also penned the number one single “Are You Teasing Me”, recorded in 1952 by Carl Smith, and several other chart hits for other chart his for other artists.
The brothers’ influence was not limited to hardcore country artists. Their tightly woven harmonies were an obvious influence on the Everly Brothers and Gram Parsons convinced the Byrds to record “The Christian Life” on the band’s seminal country-rock album, Sweethearts of the Rodeo, while also recording “Cash on the Barrelhead” on the posthumously released Grievous Angel.
The brothers’ range is evident on Livin’, Lovin’, Losin’: Songs of the Louvin Brothers, a 15-song tribute disc that recently was nominated for a Grammy for top country album.
The disc, produced by Carl Jackson, features some of the finest names in country and pop music lending their voices to an array of Louvin Brothers tracks, creating a rarity of sorts: a fully fleshed out, perfectly executed tribute disc that captures the spirit of the recording artist it means to honor while also offering a collection of contemporary performances that are worth listening to on their own merit.
The playing is flawless, the vocals inspired and the song selection a perfect glimpse into what made the Louvins one of the most influential acts in country history.
Joe Nichols and Rhonda Vincent set the tone right from the get go, with a rollicking version of “Cash on the Barrelhead”, the rocking tale of a man who is met at every turn by someone with his hands out asking for payment up front. Nichols vocal is bluesy and controlled, softened by Vincent’s higher tones, and the instrumental break—a series of tight solos on guitar, pedal steel, mandolin, and fiddle—pushes the song forward.
On “My Baby’s Gone”, Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell turn in a twangy, tasty bit of melancholy, a mandolin and pedal steel guitar underscoring the lyric, while a shuffling piano lends a rhythmic push—one of the absolute highlights of a disc loaded with highlights. And these are just the first two songs on the disc. They set a level of craftsmanship and excitement that never lets ups, moving from James Taylor and Allison Krauss’s pained version of “How’s the World Treating You”, on which the pair sound like they were meant to sing together forever, though Vince Gill and Terri Clark’s shuffling “I Can’t Keep You in Love with Me”, to Glen Campbell and Leslie Satcher’s passionate reading of “When I Stop Dreaming” (“The worst that I’ve ever been hurt / In my life /The first time I ever have / Wanted to die / Was the night when you told me / You loved someone new / And you asked me if I could forget / When I stop dreaming / That’s when I’ll stop loving you”) and into the lovely “Are You Teasing Me” sung here by Patty Loveless and Jon Randall, a song of insecurity and doubt, one that turns the standard love-song clichés into something so much darker (“You say that my kiss sends your heart in a whirl / Are you teasing me / And that you’ll be mine till the end of the world / Are you teasing me?”).
The disc closes with a trio of gospel tunes—which is in keeping with the brothers’ long commitment to the spiritual. Their early releases were primarily in the gospel mode, including their Capital debut, “The Family Who Prays,” and they had been marketed primarily as a gospel duo until joining the Grand Ole Opry in the early 1950s. On “The Angels Rejoiced”, sung by Dolly Parton and Sonya Isaacs, and “Let Us Travel, Travel On”, sung by Marty Stuart and Del McCoury, are passionate paeans to the Christian worldview.
But it is the disc’s closing song, “Keep Your Eyes on Jesus”, which brings together Pam Tillis with Johnny Cash and the Jordanaires, that stands out, with Tillis’s distinct twang wrapping around a chilling narration by Cash in what was to be one of his final recordings. In our culture of abbreviated memory, this disc should help prevent the music of the legendary Louvin Brothers from receding into that part of the past that too often is forgotten.