[2 September 2009]
PopMatters Senior Editor
Charlie Louvin, Country Music Hall of Fame legend and half of the immortal country duo The Louvin Brothers, tells PopMatters 20 Questions about the best thing he ever got – for only $3. Louvin recently released two themed albums, the Grammy-nominated Steps to Heaven, and Charlie Louvin Sings Murder Ballads and Disaster Songs, both on NYC’s Tompkins Square label. His next project is a tribute to the late Americana pioneer Gram Parsons, who was heavily influenced by the Louvin Brothers.
1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?
I don’t know what makes me cry. I might be watching Bugs Bunny and some little bug or animal gets mistreated and it shatters me. I can’t watch the animal channel when a lion kills something.
I guess I’m moved by any movie or book that has a sad story, like Gone with the Wind. What got me in that movie was the terrible loss of freedom. I loved Hattie McDaniel’s Mammy. I think I’ve seen it 15 times—it has everything in it. Everybody lost something in that movie, there was no other way to end it.
2. The fictional character most like you?
I would say the Roadrunner. All of his career he’s never been caught. He’s a slick dude. He’s got it figured out before the chase even starts.
3. The greatest album, ever?
Carl Jackson’s tribute to the Louvin Brothers, Livin’ Lovin’ Losin’: Songs of the Louvin Brothers.
4. Star Trek or Star Wars?
Star Trek. Even though it was impossible it was entertaining. They haven’t figured out how to beam anybody up yet.
I didn’t like the way they trimmed Spock’s ears.
You see the boy (William Shatner) now, they couldn’t ask to beam him up now, he’s too heavy. He bought a horse ranch in Kentucky, we drove by and tried to meet him once, but he wasn’t around.
5. Your ideal brain food?
Country cooking. My wife makes the best corn bread in an oven and a skillet, with milk.
You have to be among people—that’s what keeps you going, too.
I know my mile markers on the interstate, the last one I saw behind me or the one I see up ahead. I multiply, add and subtract as brain exercise. I multiply, multiply and then multiply a number.
Singing is good for the brain, lets me tell stories. I’m not a good orator, I don’t like how my speaking voice sounds. That’s ‘cause my brother (Ira Louvin) was so good at it. He was like a preacher, he put the tear in the listener’s eye, not in his own. I can’t do that.
6. You’re proud of this accomplishment, but why?
Becoming a member of the Grand Ole Opry in 1955. Ira and I, when we recorded enough songs to make an album on MGM, Fred Rose said “If you’re not Hank Williams you don’t belong on MGM”, so he talked to Ken Nelson at Capitol.
We played stringed instruments and none of the gospel groups did then, they thought we were a carnival act. We couldn’t work the clubs because the clubs couldn’t serve booze. I told Ken we were gonna quit. I was working at the post office at the time.
We worked in Memphis, then Knoxville, then Greensboro, North Carolina, then went back to Memphis with no luck. Ken Nelson got us on the show and we became members. We went through so much and finally got there.
7. You want to be remembered for…?
Being honest and dependable. My daddy said if your word isn’t worth anything then your signature’s worth the same.
I’m not the world’s greatest singer, but I get more satisfaction from singing than hearing other people do it. I pride myself in singing on key. I would shoot a man if he put me through Auto-Tune.
8. Of those who’ve come before, the most inspirational are?
Red Foley. He could make tears come out of his eyes, a lot of people can’t do that.
Us country people run into hecklers from time to time. He had a heckler in the audience, he was fixing to do the gospel segment of his show. He said, “I have the mike, I can make fun of this guy, but I did that once and after the show (the heckler’s) mother came backstage (Charlie is crying) and apologized, said she couldn’t get no one to keep the boy for the night and I’m such a big fan of yours.” The boy wasn’t right (mentally ill).
He recorded a song about a black funeral. The song says he heard a plaintive funeral hymn and he looked inside the church and there was black child in a casket and mourners. The preacher said “God didn’t give you that baby, he just let you keep it for a while.” It moved Ira.
He was a wood carver. He built a wooden church based on the song, and when you looked out the window of the church and there was an open grave. He carved little things to hang hats on, it was beautiful. Ira’s kids got to playing with it, lost all the little parts, but I still have it.
Foley was the best performer on stage, he sang songs that you could believe.
Another country loss caused by whiskey.
9. The creative masterpiece you wish bore your signature?
“Suppertime” by Jimmie Davis.
(Recites lyrics, sings a little. Charlie cries over the last two lines)
Many years ago in days of childhood
I used to play till evening shadows come
Then winding down an old familiar pathway
I heard my mother call at set of sun.
Come home, come home, it’s supper time
the shadows lengthen fast
Come home, come home, it’s supper time
we’re going home at last.
Some of the fondest memories of my childhood
were woven around supper time
when my mother used to call
from the back steps of the old home place
Come on home now son it’s supper time.
Ah gee but I’d love to hear that once more.
But you know for me time has woven the realization
of a truth that is even more thrilling.
And that’s when the call comes
from the portals of glory to come home for it’s supper time.
When all of God’s children shall gather round the table
with the Lord Himself At the greatest supper time of them all.
It’s an affirmation that there is a better place than where we live now. He’s thinking back to when he was a child.
10. Your hidden talents…?
I’ve got 48 plus acres here. I have a Kubota tractor. I love to plant trees, planted 20 Bradford pear trees.
I love birds. I have four blue martins. I put up gourds with holes in them. They make a nest and they eat the mosquitoes around here. Only here between March and July, I think they go back to South America. I heard they kill them there, they’re considered pests. I have birdhouses for the bluebirds here.
We put up bales of hay, put a target on it. You wouldn’t want me to shoot at you.
11. The best piece of advice you actually followed?
You can do it.
Believe it or not, when things got bad with the Louvins every time we went out, Ira said we were over on the way home. We did a show with Ray Price, 1963 Watseka, Illinois, and on the way home he started his rant and that was it.
I told him that was the last Louvin Brothers show. Betty (Charlie’s wife) thought I could do it (go solo).
12. The best thing you ever bought, stole, or borrowed?
My $3 marriage license in 1949. Got me Betty.
13. You feel best in Armani or Levis or…?
Levis. I have some extremely nice uniforms. My clothes are a vest, a choker, a coat sometimes, I have some sparkly clothes I just don’t wear them that much.
Me and Ira had Nudie suits and shoes. The coat would be 10-20 pounds soaking with sweat by the time you got off stage.
Because of the first Tompkins Square album, people recognize me with the straw hat, if I take it off they don’t recognize me.
14. Your dinner guest at the Ritz would be?
My wife Betty.
15. Time travel: where, when and why?
I’d go back to the mid-50s when country was country, and the Louvins were singing.
16. Stress management: hit man, spa vacation or Prozac?
Working the road and singing.
17. Essential to life: coffee, vodka, cigarettes, chocolate, or…?
Coffee and cigarettes.
Photo by Joshua Black Wilkins
18. Environ of choice: city or country, and where on the map?
Country. Home in Manchester, Tennessee.
19. What do you want to say to the leader of your country?
Less taxes. The things our president is doing is frightening, trying to ram things through. I know there’s 40-50 million people that need insurance and couldn’t afford it because of pre-existing conditions. But generations will be paying for this stuff.
20. Last but certainly not least, what are you working on, now?
Recording a new live CD at the Gram Parsons Guitar Pull in Waycross, Georgia for Tompkins Square, September 19th. The show is the day after our 60th wedding anniversary.