The Lost Charlie Louvin Interview
Westword's article about country music pioneer Charlie Louvin, of Louvin Brothers fame, appeared in our April 5 issue -- but somehow, the interview that formed the foundation of that profile never wound up online. Allow us to correct this oversight by posting the entire dialogue here.
A lot of fascinating ground was covered during this wide-ranging discussion. Louvin talks about the genesis of Charlie Louvin, his latest album, made for the independent Tompkins Square imprint; the process by which he performed duets with artists including Elvis Costello, Tom T. Hall, Bobby Bare, George Jones, Lambchop and Wilco's Jeff Tweedy; his gratitude for the late Gram Parsons' fandom, and the continuing support of Emmylou Harris; his dissatisfaction with the country-music industry in general, and country radio in particular; an early tour during which Elvis Presley briefly served as the Louvin Brothers' opening act; the moment when he understood that Elvis was no passing fad; the unique harmonies achieved by Charlie and his late brother, Ira; the continuing power of "Knoxville Girl," arguably the Louvins' best remembered recording; Ira's sad alcoholic decline, and its effect on Charlie's own taste for spirits; his participation in the 2007 Bonnaroo festival; a problem he had with Loretta Lynn's book Coal Miner's Daughter; and the joys and challenges of the road.
Sorry for the delay -- but this is one conversation that was worth the wait.
Westword (Michael Roberts): How did your new album come together?
Charlie Louvin: Well, I was sitting in my sun room at home, and the telephone rang. It was in early April last year, and it was Josh Rosenthal. He said, “I’ve seen your show in Albany, New York, about a year ago, and I liked the show, and I came back home and checked you out, and I seen you haven’t had an international release in ten years.” And I said, “Well, Josh, you’ve done your homework.” And he said, “How would you like to record on my label?” Up to that point, I didn’t know he had a label. And I said, “That’d be nice.” And he said he had distribution, so all the other things that I’d had in the past ten years… It’s not that I didn’t record. But I was on minor labels, independent labels, people who didn’t have the money to mail out a bunch of records, and didn’t have no distribution. You can’t win with a situation like that. So he wanted to know what kind of contract I wanted. And I said, “Well, draw up one and come on down.” So he flew down to Nashville and got a guy he trusted to drive him out to my house. I live 75 miles out of town. And he came out, and we signed the contract, and we got together and started working around the first of May. I got my part done el pronto, you know. I recorded twenty songs in three two-hour sessions, and Josh picked the tunes, so I didn’t mess with that. If I changed his tunes, then if it didn’t happen, guess whose fault it would be. I guess I was a little chicken there, but I was familiar with all the songs he had chose, and we got in there and done them. And I believe something good is going to come from this. I’ve been in five record stores so far. Some of them had sixty CDs on hand, some of them had fifty, some of them had forty. But ever place I’ve done the in-store promotion, they’ve sold out. And that causes a reorder, and that makes Uncle Josh awful happy.
WW: Did you actually appear in the studio with all of the guests on the CD? Or were some of the songs done long distance?
CL: I was there and helped with Elvis Costello’s part, and I was the one who secured Possum Jones, and I was there when he did his, and Tom T. Hall and Bobby Bare. And I was also there when Joy Lynn White did her little bit. The first part of hers, on the verse, it didn’t seem like she was totally familiar with the melody – but when she got to the chorus, she totally opened up and blew me away. But the other kids – Tweedy, the boy from Uncle Tupelo, and Lambchop and them – the producer just caught ‘em as he could, and he used that as an excuse: “Well, I would have called you, but they were there and ready, and you live so far out.” And I wish people wouldn’t view me that way, because I live where I live by choice, and I can be in town in an hour and five minutes. But he didn’t call me on the rest of the people. So some of them I haven’t met yet. But a few of them I’ll meet at the South By Southwest thing next Wednesday in Austin, Texas. And then I’ll meet some more of them at the Bonnaroo. I’m doing the Bonnaroo this year, and some kind of huge, huge festival in northern Michigan later this year. So I’ll finally get around to meeting them and thanking them for helping us out on this.
WW: Were you familiar with all of their music?
CL: Yeah, I was, through their writing. I never met Gram Parsons. But I’m a friend of Emmylou Harris, and I guess you’ve heard the story of how she was introduced to Louvin Brothers music. Gram played her some, and she said, “Who is that girl singing that high part?” And he said, “That’s no girl. That’s Ira Louvin.” So he’s responsible for introducing the Louvin music catalog to a lot of people who never had or never would have heard it if it wouldn’t have been for him. He was just a kid the first time he heard the Louvin Brothers.
WW: So you’d heard, say, Jeff Tweedy before?
CL: Well, I went out and bought the records, and Uncle Tupelo recorded “Great Atomic Power.” That was written because of the cold war in the late ‘40s. But we’re in a lot more danger today than we were back when we were worried about Russia sending us one of those explosions over here. Now I think we’ve got two or three countries that would send us one if they had a vehicle to do it with.
WW: I’m afraid you’re right about that. So was the idea behind having guests is that you could get radio airplay?
CL: I think that’s it, yes. Josh told me, “If you’ll cut these tunes, I’m positive I can get ‘em played on college radio.” The only one we’ve tried it on so for is one in New York City. We did a two-hour interview there live, on the radio, and I did a two-hour interview on Vanderbilt’s college radio station. And if we can get played on college radio, we can play the universities, which would be groovy (laughs).
WW: Does it seem strange to you that college radio will play your CD, but country radio won’t?
CL: Excuse my French, but country radio ain’t worth a damn today. The stuff they call country is an insult to the industry. But that’s where the money’s coming from, so they do what they’re told to do.
WW: What’s wrong with the songs getting played on country radio?
CL: Some of it’s got pretty good lyrics, but it’s got a rock-and-roll beat to it. The guitars and the drums are right up in your face, and you’re lucky to even hear the words on a lot of the songs. They act like they’re only interested in the music. The singers should have stayed home. And I constantly am asked, “What has happened to country music?” And I say, “Ain’t nothin’s happened to it. It’s still alive. I still do country.” For the most part, Alan Jackson does, and a hundred percent of George Strait’s stuff is good country. So there’s still a few country artists around. And country has always come back. They ain’t through with country music yet. It’ll have a surge, and it’ll come back.
WW: When do you think that’ll happen?
CL: When they go as far as they can go with the other, there’s nothing to do except start over. And when that happens, it’ll be good. Here in Nashville, they’re griping about the sales of records. They’re down 25 percent. And exactly what’s happened, and they refuse to accept this, they’ve been recording things that the country fans don’t like. They can hype them all they want to, but they can’t make them buy. That’s what’s happening to the sales now. And the first week ours has been out, we sold four, five, six-thousand records, which is very good. And the record shop in Denver, we’ll do a performance in that. That’s what we’ve done in six or seven places, and every one of them has sold out of records before we get there. So I hope that happens in Denver, and we’re going to do other ones in Los Angeles and San Francisco, and one in Boise, Idaho, and Seattle.
WW: You’ve been through rock overwhelming country before. Does this feel a bit like déjà vu?
CL: It does. Ira and I did a hundred days with Elvis Presley, and in the beginning, the first three or four weeks of that hundred days, it was the Louvin Brothers and also Elvis Presley. But then a couple of weeks later – of course, he was on the Dorsey Brothers TV show every Saturday – they didn’t even use his last name. The backdrop of the stage, if the stage was fifty feet wide, the backdrop was that size, and it simply said “Elvis.” And he caught on fire quick and burned very bright for a good long while.
WW: Did it bother you when he became the headliner and you became the opening act? Or did it make sense to you?
CL: I think so, because nobody could’ve went on stage after Presley was on. The audience wouldn’t have allowed it, the kids wouldn’t have. It didn’t bother us. We went ahead and opened, and let him close. It was the right thing to do, because he was, like the old saying, hotter than a tater tot. But he was a good kid. I enjoyed him. He was a Louvin Brothers fan. It was in print several times, that we were his favorite. That could’ve been because of his mom. He loved his mom, and anybody who loved his mom as much as he did couldn’t be all bad. And his mother loved our gospel music. And everybody thought that Elvis was a fad, that it wouldn’t last long. And my wife, being from Memphis, Tennessee, we went down on a visit one day. The Louvin Brothers had a new gospel album out, so we took it by Mrs. Presley’s house. He wasn’t home, but I seen a lady out there older than my mother was reaching under the fence. He had a rail fence. And she was reaching under the fence pulling grass to take home with her. And I knew then it wasn’t a fad.
WW: When rock took over, how badly were groups like yours hurt?
CL: Well, at that time, we were doing all gospel, because Capitol Records already had a secular duet, Jim and Jesse. In the good old days, they didn’t have ten soloists that sounded alike, or ten duets that sounded alike. So they said, “If you want to sing gospel music, we’ll sign you.” And God knows we needed a contract to sign, so we took it. And Elvis didn’t bother our gospel music that much. We still sold pretty good. Capitol was very happy with what we were doing.
WW: It’s amazing to me that anyone could have thought your music sounded like anyone else’s. You had such a unique vocal style.
CL: Well, we were raised in sacred harp country. That’s the shaped notes. They had five part harmonies. And my brother, if you listen to gospel music, he didn’t always sing first tenor. He’d go into the fifth part. Wherever he thought it would sound good, he just stuck it in there. And we could switch parts in the middle with words, and that’s what always confused the other people. There’s never been anybody else who’d successfully used that. We didn’t have to step on each other’s toe or wink or nothing. I knew that if it was fixing to get too high for me to sing the lead, so he’d automatically take the lead, and I’d automatically do the low harmony under it. It was just something we grew up with, but it was different.
WW: Does it surprise you that some of the songs you recorded back then have lasted so long? Especially “Knoxville Girl,” which has such a dark lyric?
CL: The “Knoxville Girl,” even when Ira and I had a number one record with “I Don’t Love You Anymore” and “I Don’t Believe You’ve Met My Baby,” we’d do a program, and before the third song was over on the front of the show, somebody would holler out for “Knoxville Girl.” They wouldn’t request the number one song, but they demanded the “Knoxville Girl.” So it turned out to be the most requested song that we ever sang. People would say, “What did this nut do this dastardly thing to this girl?” Well, if you listen to this song, right up pretty close to the front of the song, where it says he took her by her golden curls and drug her around and around, throwing her in the river that flowed through Knoxville town? And he said go down, go down, you Knoxville girl, with the dark and roving eyes? She had eyes for somebody else, and he was one of these nuts he said, “If I can’t have you, nobody will.” And we still have a lot of those kind of nuts around today. If a girl gives him a piece of tail or promises something she doesn’t live up to, he just comes unglued and bumps her off. Which is bad, but I guess that’s life.
WW: Did you ever perform back in the day with George Jones and Tom T. Hall?
CL: I did. On the road, we did a lot of shows that both of those guys was on. And I want to make it known that I didn’t do the single act willingly. We didn’t have a choice. My brother was a drinker. People say, “Why did you guys break up?” And I just simply said, “Jack Daniels.” I didn’t then and I don’t know today how to handle a drunk. There’s no sure way to do it. When a guy gets too much to drink, he’s another person than the one you knew when he was sober. And my brother was no different from that.
WW: That must have been even more difficult to deal with, considering that he was your brother…
CL: Well, it was. If his mandolin got out of tune on the stage, when we were just starting the show, he’d just simply throw it into the wall behind him and go and stomp it, and call his wife and tell her to ship him another mandolin to the next town. But he would sweep the mandolin up in a sack, every splinter, and a couple of months down the road, you’d see that mandolin and it wouldn’t have a scratch on it. He could put it back together. When he got killed in the car wreck, he had three mandolins he hadn’t had a chance to repair yet. I’ve made the supreme sacrifice because of booze. I don’t care what you do with it. If you get to the point where you say, “I can do my job better with a drink,” you’ve got problems. Anybody who says they can do their work better by having a few drinks, they’re kidding themselves. That is the case in a lot of areas of our life.
WW: Do you drink at all these days? Or have you given it up entirely?
CL: No. In fact, yesterday, I was with friends up in a place, and I drank a margarita. One margarita don’t phase me in any way, and sometimes if the barbecue is spicy enough or the pizza is good enough, I’ll drink a beer. But I drink it as a beverage, not to get high with. And I don’t get that way.
WW: Are you excited to be part of Bonnaroo this year?
CL: Oh, yes. The Bonnaroo thing is in my hometown, and from where I live, I could go in my front yard after the sun goes down and hear the bass drum and bass fiddle. And sometimes you could even hear what songs the rock people were singing. It’s quite an honor. Of course, I’m not going to do anything different from what I’ve been doing. I’m just going to do my best, and sometimes my best today may not be as good as my best yesterday. But I always do my best.
WW: Your voice has certainly changed over the years, but it’s still very expressive.
CL: I believe I can tell a story better today than I could forty years ago. That’s the kind of songs I like. I like songs that are humanly possible. I don’t like science fiction. And I like things that are true. It’s kind of like Loretta Lynn’s movie and her book and all that. She excluded the Wilburn Brothers. Never mentioned them. If it hadn’t been for the Wilburn Brothers, there never would’ve been a Loretta Lynn. They took her under their wing, put her on their television show, got her a record contract, got her on the Opry. Hell, it’s just ludicrous for her not to mention them. But they had some kind of misunderstanding, and she was mad at them. So when she wrote the book, she just left them out. I’ve never seen the movie. My wife’s watched it, that Coal Miner’s Daughter thing. But that’s not right. I suppose I have some enemies in the world, but if I heard a song that was better than anything I had, I don’t care who wrote it, I’ll record it. Because if an artist don’t record the best song he gets his hands on because of the writer, he’s screwing with his own career, he’ll lose every time.
WW: How do you feel about all of the attention you’re getting these days?
CL: To tell you the truth, it scares the hell out of me. I just got back from New York. We played Philadelphia and then New York and then went to Boston, and we had great success on those three days. On the Western tour, I believe we’re starting in Boulder, I hired a guy who plays the dobro but who owns a bus. And I made a deal with him – so much for the dobro and so much for the bus. I’ll have to hire a driver, because you can’t drive day and night and perform on the stage. So we’re going to travel in class on this Northwest tour, and I believe I can stand up to that. I’m not sure. I went out and bought a trailer and a Suburban, but the band hates me when I say, “We’re going to use the Suburban on this trip.” You can’t get a ride good enough to come close to a bus. And it’s great insurance. If worst comes to worst, you could pile up a dozen cars and live in a bus. But you don’t want to tangle with an 18-wheeler, because they weight 80,000 and you only way 40,000. You can always figure out a way to get killed, but you need to try to use your head and try to be safe.