Music

Charlie Louvin: Steps to Heaven

The Country Hall of Fame inductee releases his first of two 2008 albums with a stripped-down gospel setting.


Charlie Louvin

Steps to Heaven

Label: Tompkins Square
UK Release Date: 2008-09-16
US Release Date: 2008-09-16
Amazon
Amazon
iTunes

"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.

8

So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less
6

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less
Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less
10

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less
7

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image