The Country Hall of Fame inductee releases his first of two 2008 albums with a stripped-down gospel setting.
"Precious Lord, take my hand / lead me on... lead me home"
Charlie Louvin heads home in more than one way on Steps to Heaven. The Country Hall of Famer returns to his gospel roots while also performing songs that embrace meeting his maker. The Louvin Brothers, the 1950s-1960s Grand Ole Opry duo, developed a vocal harmony style based on shape note singing learned in church, and made a beautiful mixture of country, gospel, and popular music. Alt-country fans consider their early-'60s releases like Satan is Real and A Tribute to the Delmore Brothers cult classics, and Johnny Cash and Gram Parsons placed them on a revered pedestal. While Ira died in a tragic car accident in 1965, his brother Charlie continued to make records in the late '60s, plus last year's self-titled album. Steps to Heaven is the first of two albums released this year on Tompkins Square and recorded, mixed, and produced by Mark Nevers (Bonnie "Prince" Billy, Andrew Bird). The second, Charlie Louvin Sings Murder Ballads and Disaster Songs, comes out December 9. Louvin, 80, chose to embrace new musical challenges rather than bask in the success of his glory years.
Steps to Heaven includes ten traditional gospel pieces, two of which are Louvin Brothers songs. "I did things on the gospel record I had no idea I could do. I'd be thinking along the way, 'How can I do things I've never done before?' And I did it," Louvin says of recording with the black gospel choir. The three sisters sing in call-and-response fashion, provide background vocals in harmony intervals like 3rds and 5ths, and borrow the lead from Louvin occasionally. Journeyman gospel pianist Derrick Lee accompanies the voices in a magnificent minimalist manner, opening the space between singers and instrumentation and lifting the soul of the song to something bigger. The songs speak of praise ("There's a Higher Power"), acceptance of life after death ("Where We'll Never Grow Old"), and the grandfatherly image of God extending his arms to embrace all ("Precious Lord, Take My Hand"). All the songs denote ending one chapter of life, and the readiness to move on to the promised land of heaven.
Lee's piano accompaniment helps create an ambience of a worship service at the local Baptist church, while the several-part vocal harmonies sound centuries old. One can almost smell the must from opening a moldy hymnal and see the outlines of a choir in floating robes. Selections range from hand-clapping, toe-stomping spirituals ("When the Roll is Called Up Yonder") to the Vaudeville-esque "I Feel Like Traveling On", with its stride piano-playing and Louvin's relaxed, improvised delivery. The swinging rhythm of "Traveling On" lends itself to the loose swagger of a normally contained and composed Louvin, perhaps best exemplifying Louvin's change and challenge. Whatever part of Louvin that does not sound relaxed and carefree adds to the frailty and vulnerability of his voice. His slightly wavering vocal cords project his acceptance of death, while his very apparent comfort in the new gospel format implicates his readiness and lack of fear. He still attempts upper vocal harmonies moving from dissonance to consonance ("Where We'll Never Grow Old"), recalling his Louvin Brothers Close Harmony days.
Chris Scruggs contributes upright bass and electric guitar tracks to fill out the sometimes stark sound of the piano. The toe-tapping "There's a Higher Power", for instance, profits from the well-rounded sound of a low-end instrument and crisp, syncopated guitar work. Sometimes, however, songs achieve a grandiosity with just a fortissimo set of vocals and pounding piano chords. The closing piece, "I Am Bound for the Promised Land", achieves a humble early-20th century gospel appeal with stripped-down accompaniment and Louvin's Old One-Hundredth embrace of the next step in life.