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Charlie Louvin Part 3

PART THREE: …Charlie Louvin recalls the classic Satan Is Real record…Gram Parsons…Emmylou Harris…The loss of his brother…Guests on his latest CD…A special birthday at the Ryman…

Talk a little about the classic record the Louvin Brothers recorded in 1960, Satan Is Real. What do you remember about that record?

Well, my wife and I were living up on a little farm in Goodlettsville, Tennessee, and about a half a mile from us was a rock quarry—it wasn’t active anymore and Ira and I had written this song. We wanted it to be the name of an album. So, my wife Betty and I—our oldest son had a Lionel train and it was on a sheet of plywood. We were so close with money, so close to going under that we didn’t have the money to go buy another sheet of plywood. So we took the train off that one and ripped it in two which made it 16 feet tall and together we built what we were told what the bogeyman would look like. He’d have a pitchfork and he’d have horns—very scary looking.

We painted it up and Capitol Records sent a photographer Ken Veeder from Hollywood to take the pictures. So we took car tires and filled them full of kerosene—had it all ready, and it started sprinkling’ rain. Well, this Ken Veeder got very nervous and didn’t want his camera to get any water on it. We’ll do this later, he said. We’ve got two weeks work in this already. If we can stand out here and play like we’re enjoying it you can go ahead and shoot that camera. So, he did. The rest of it is history. A couple years back somebody asked this rock and roll artist to choose the top 50 album covers of all time, and Satan Is Real came in fifth. I thought that was phenomenal. We just looked at that book today.

Well, I discovered your music through Gram Parsons…

CL: I never met Gram. I credit him with introducing Louvin Brothers to (you) and to Emmylou. He told Emmylou I want to play you something. He got her to sit down and listen, and she asked who is that girl singing the high part? And he said that’s not a girl, that’s Ira Louvin. So, that’s how she met the Louvin Brothers music. She was very kind to us she cut four or five (songs). We’re still friends today, Emmylou and I. Her first number one song, the first release she had “If I Could Only Win Your Love” was a Louvin Brothers song. Gram introduced the Louvin sound to a lot of people because they tell me—it’s an Emmylou story—that Gram would pay people in California to go around to all these old record stores and pawnshops to see if they could find any Louvin Brothers music. He’d pay them for their trouble. I wish I could have met him.

Your music, as I’ve gotten older, carries an even heavier weight once you experience some adverse turns in life. You could say those songs serve as medicine to troubled souls…

My brother—he didn’t live it—I’m not saying that, but he was pretty close to a biblical scholar. He knew the book. You could listen to the songs. You knew he knew the book. That’s basically what Louvin Brothers music was about. The way you’re living today might not be the way you want to die. I’ve gotten thousands of letters stating the fact that Louvin Brothers music turned them around, and put them on the right track. That makes you feel pretty good. I don’t know if they’ll be a reward for that or not, I doubt it, but down here it makes you feel good.

Losing your brother must’ve altered your life…you played music together a long time. How did you carry on?

James, it was all I knew how to do. I’d already been doing 20-25 years—since 41 as a duet. I didn’t know how to do anything else. I didn’t want to go back to the farm, I knew that (laughs). I couldn’t go back to the post office because I asked for a leave of absence, and the post master said, ‘You have to make up your mind if you want to be a hillbilly or a postal employee, and your request is denied. I told him where he could put his job and it wasn’t where the sun would shine. I’m sure he would’ve had thrown me out if I went back.

What’s been the hardest thing for you to learn after all these years?

Some of the business hasn’t been that hard to learn James, it’s a few of the things I was supposed to unlearn. I today—and we’re talking 41 or 42 years later—when I’m singing a Louvin Brothers song and I have some people who help me with harmony and today everybody has their own microphone. We always worked one microphone. When it comes time for the harmony I step to the left to give the harmony a chance to get in the other side. It’s a habit that I haven’t been able to break. Old habits are extremely hard to break. It’s not too hard to learn something, but life changes and you would like to forget that, and it’s harder to do than it was to learn it.

Let’s talk about your new CD. When did you start planning to cut these songs?

I was sitting right where I’m sitting now and the telephone rang and it was Josh Rosenthal from New York. He introduced himself and said two years ago I seen your show in Albany, New York, and I checked you out. You haven’t had an international release in ten years, and I said that’s exactly right. You’ve done your homework. Now what? Well, how would you like to record on my label? I needed it, so I said I’d like to. He said, if you’ll record the songs I send down I guarantee you I can get this played on college radio. If they play it on college radio you can work the universities. That sounded very interesting because that’s how Lester, Earl, and Willie got well was playing the colleges. So he sent the songs down and there were two or three Carter Family songs, "On A Green Hillside”, “Worried Man Blues”, and “Kneeling Drunkards Plea”. I heard those songs when I was very young on a battery radio with what they called Carter family transcriptions. Now, Ira and I recorded “Kneeling Drunkards Plea”. I never recorded “Grave On a Green Hillside’ or “The Worried Man Blues”. He sent those, he sent a Jimmie Rodgers song. He chose “Must You Throw Dirt In My Face”, that was a 1958 release of ours. “When I Stop Dreaming”. “The Christian Life”. There’s one more…

“Knoxville Girl”…

“The Knoxville Girl”, of course we certainly didn’t write that. That’s a three hundred year old English folk song. We sang it first after everyone else had forgotten it. My brother and I were working in Knoxville and we started singing that song. People imagined that was written about Knoxville, Tennessee, because they got a river that runs right through there. It sounded logical and turned out to be the most requested song Ira and I ever sang. We didn’t go anywhere and not get a request for that song. We might have a number one record like: “I Don’t Believe You Met My Baby”, but they might not request that song, but somebody would always demand “Knoxville Girl”. I just thought it would be sensible if we put that on there and Mr. Rosenthal did also. So we recorded three, two hour sessions; it was supposed to be three hour sessions, but by the time the guys got there, got in tune, and had coffee and all this, and hour would have gone. So we would record two hours and it was time for the guys to eat and the session was over. We did this three times, and recorded 20 songs. Out of the 20 songs I had to go back and re-record two of them. The first one’s they call scratch versions, but I never just slouched through a song with the attitude that ‘hey, I can come back later and do it again’. So 18 of them were acceptable but they only chose 12 for the CD. We still got 8 more laying there—a Johnny Cash number.

Any plans for the song you wrote last night?

Well, it was a gospel song, “Awake With A Smile”. Someday I hope you’ll hear it.

I hope so. You’ve got some musical guests on this album. Talk about them, starting with George Jones.

Well, “Possum” is a good friend of mine. I asked him. Josh wanted George on that record. But I went over to his house and set it up. On the CD that I had just had brand new out at the time, called If Only In A Song, but I had cut an old Tom T. Hall song called “Back When We Were Young”, a great new version of it. I wanted Tom T on it, so he did that talking (on the new CD), “Blues Stay Away”. He sung one little old line at the end of it. Bobby Bare came with Tom T that day—I think they were going fishing later. Mark Never got him to record some also on that one and I think he recorded some on “Worried Man Blues”. I was there when Elvis Costello came. I never met Jeff Tweedy. He brought them in without calling me because I would have drove down—I’m 75 miles out—but I would’ve been glad to drive down and met the people. Josh tells me he’s going to do something I’ve never been a part of—on my 80th birthday—this coming July he said he was going to rent the Ryman. That’s the way we’re going to celebrate the 80th birthday.

You’ll have to make sure they roll the cameras and tapes for that one.

(laughs) We might even get a little video out of that…

Why not? It’s good to hear someone who’s been around as long as you still out on the stage playing your music. The new CD is amazing.

You made a statement earlier in our conversation that you felt like a character in a Louvin Brothers song…I’ll remember that…that’s very good…

I mean that in the highest sense of a compliment. When I was 20 I loved your music because of my romantic view of the pure country harmonies. But now, I hear it on a whole other level. The stakes have been raised…under the right circumstances those songs will send you to your knees.

Did you ever hear—I can tell almost from your conversation what you’re going through. Did you ever hear the song in the Louvin Brothers catalogue called “What Can Any Man Do For A Woman That I Haven’t Done For You.” It’s a mean song if you’re not in the right mood. Ira was killed with his fourth wife. He just couldn’t seem to say or do the right things. He had two or three wives most anybody could've lived with, but he had very little patience for the human race. He could take a piece of wood and make something you wouldn’t believe, and he’d work on it for three months to finish it—had all the patience in the world—but when it come to people he didn’t have much patience. I think that’s what happened to his marriages.

read on to Part 4

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