Charlie Louvin: Sings Murder Ballads & Disaster Songs
Louvin's voice possesses the wisdom of a life that has seen enough tragedy to understand that it remains both mysterious and inevitable, and endlessly fascinating to singing about.
There are many factors that have led to traditional country music’s resurgence in popularity among rock fans over the past 15 years, from the career resuscitations of classic artists (Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn, Merle Haggard) to the influence on younger artists who have further shaped and progressed the genre (Robbie Fulks, Will Oldham, Neko Case, Paula Frazer et al). But all the Rick Rubin production and country-punk fusions wouldn’t mean squat if it weren’t for material that resonated with the millions of folks raised on mainstream rock radio, something Scott H. Biram likes to call “blood, sweat, and murder”. The realization via songs like Cash’s “Delia’s Gone” or Uncle Tupelo’s reading of “Lilli Schull” (or even the Lemonheads’ cover of “Knoxville Girl”) that country music’s ingrained heartbreak need not be quaint nor coiffured, cannot be overestimated.
The legendary Charlie Louvin, whose work with his brother Ira as the Louvin Brothers has influenced generations, has hit the trifecta in recent years with tastefully and lovingly produced albums featuring plenty of hipster bait (Jeff Tweedy, Oldham, Elvis Costello). Now, after releasing the gospel-flavored Steps to Heaven back in September, Louvin unveils Charlie Louvin Sings Murder Ballads and Disaster Songs, just in time for the holidays!
But kidding aside, this is a well-curated set of material, which makes complete sense since Louvin’s current label, Tompkins Square, put out the acclaimed boxed set People Take Warning! Murder Ballads & Disaster Songs 1913-1938 back in 2007. There are songs that are fairly ubiquitous (“Dark as a Dungeon”, “Wreck of the Old 97”), and others that are slightly less so (“Katy Dear”, “Darling Corey”). But each song is backed by a sturdy, genteel band (featuring members of Lambchop among others), and Louvin gives characteristically varied and rich performances in what is now a warm, honeyed warble.
Andrew Bird lays a brief solo down on “Darling Corey”, a spry take on the bluegrass classic, but the focus of Mark Nevers’s production is Louvin’s voice as it weaves the tale of a wild woman ultimately cut down by the song’s narrator. The song is fascinating as much for what it leaves out of the story as what it includes. The song leaps from verse (“Go away… darling Corey / Your liquor has ruined my body / Pretty women gone to my head”) to chorus (“Dig a hole dig a hole in the meadow / Gonna lay darling Corey down”) without explanation, but with ample room for imagination, the crafty and ultimately more ominous element missing from much contemporary art centered around violence.
Hearing an 80-plus-year-old man sing about disastrous young love, drinkin’ and murder, also adds a different dimension to the experience than hearing it from artists around the same age as the songs’ characters. It’s the wisdom of a life that has seen enough tragedy to understand that it remains both mysterious and inevitable, and worth singing about. Louvin’s voice has aged, it’s limited in range, and it’s way, way past the polished sheens of modern country pop singing, but it possesses a charm and authority that one can only attain from living a full, rich life. From the playful sing-speak of “Dixie Boll Weevil” to the low rumblings of “Dark as a Dungeon”, Louvin remains a consummate singer and performer. No wonder there are still legions of musicians falling over each other to work with him.