The Louvin Brothers: Charlie, The Idea Man
Born Charlie Elzer Loudermilk on July 7, 1927, in Section, Ala., Charlie and his brother Ira recognized as youngsters that they had a knack for harmony; Ira would (eventually) bring to the table a high, throaty-not whiny-tenor, upon which Charlie would fundamentally wrap his more melodic tenor strain. The harmonies produced were tighter than tight, but the brothers were able to find something to say too-albeit separately at first-at the tender age of 14. Charlie’s first song, “A Tiny Broken Heart,” was inspired by a girlfriend he had when he was seven year old. Some 60 years later, the tune was cut in 2000 by Dan Tyminski (Allison Krauss & Union Station, Lonesome River Boys) for his Rounder Records release Carry Me Across the Mountain. Talk about enduring…
Charlie and Ira’s souls were stirred from the outset; the brothers clung to their Opry-fueled radio, taking musical cues from the popular family harmony acts of the day-Monroe Brothers, Blue Sky Boys, Delmore Brothers and more-and probably thinking to themselves at some point, ‘Heck, we can do that.’ And they did.
They took their first paying gig, a birthday party, in 1940. For the next seven years they played an assortment of small package shows and radio spots, taking them up and down Alabama’s Hwy. 59 and finally to Chattanooga and Knoxville, where the scent of Nashville’s Music Row lingered nearby-awaiting some new blood. Charlie did a stint in the Army during World War II and the Korean War, while Ira cut sides with Charlie Monroe and his Kentucky Partners for RCA Victor. Upon Charlie’s return the duo began writing and performing more seriously, under “The Louvin Brothers” now for the first time. Diligently, slowly but surely, the duo began crafting the songs and records that to this day remain some of the most indelible, creative documents in the American musical canon. From 1948 to 1952 they signed a publishing deal with Acuff-Rose, recorded for MGM, Decca, and finally settled down with Capitol Records in late 1952. And thus the stage was set.
1956 yielded The Louvin Brothers’ first No. 1 hit (“I Don’t Believe You’ve Met My Baby”) and the release of their Capitol debut (Tragic Songs of Life) which contained the previously-mentioned “A Tiny Broken Heart” as well as the classic “Alabama”-which has since become the state’s official song. And the hits kept coming: “When I Stop Dreaming,” “Hoping That You’re Hoping,” “Knoxville Girl,” “You’re Running Wild,” “My Baby’s Gone,” “Cash on the Barrelhead,” “Must You Throw Dirt in My Face,” “How’s the World Treating You,” “Kentucky,” “Are You Teasing Me,” “Keep Your Eyes on Jesus,” and many, many more. The brothers split in 1963 to pursue solo careers, though tragedy struck in 1965 when Ira was killed in a car wreck while touring the Midwest. Like many untimely deaths of that era, Ira’s passing deeply affected music community, and we’re left to wonder what might have become of the brothers’ future collaboration. Luckily, Charlie continued to record as a major label solo artist, producing and estimable, underrated body of work throughout the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s and also releasing a handful of independent album in the ‘90s.
The Louvin Brothers became one of the most successful, respected-and many argue the best-duos in country music history. They blurred more genre lines than just about anyone, following their muse wherever it led, be it traditional country, bluegrass, hillbilly, Appalachian, pop, gospel or folk. Their collaborative process, in songwriting specifically, was simple but effective; Charlie was the guidepost, the idea man, the title streamliner. Ira was the interpreter, the melody man, the lyrical talent. They just clicked, and the rest is history…
Upon hearing through the grapevine last spring that Charlie Louvin was working on his first (secular) album in quite some, American Songwriter caught up with him at The Louvin Brothers Museum-a quaint, traditional establishment which has been operating since the late ‘60s-located in Nashville’s Opry Mills area. He was in the throws of recording a new album, produced by Mark Nevers (Calexico, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, Bobby Bare Sr.), and was insistent on just shooting the breeze rather than spilling the beans too early on the new project.
At press time a release date for Charlie’s new album was set for February 20, on New York-based Tompkins Square Entertainment, and touted guest appearances from a who’s who of classic and contemporary aficionados-Elvis Costello, Jeff Tweedy, Will Oldham, Tom T. Hall, George Jones, Bobby Bare Sr., Tift Merritt, Marty Stuart, Clem Snide, members of Bright Eyes and more. So for over or so we chatted about the magic of music, livin’, lovin’, losin’ and the Louvin legacy. Charlie cranked things off…
Charlie: Hey I got a story to tell you about the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.
American Songwriter: Lay it on me
Well this was back in 1975 and my wife Betty said, “Let’s go to this dinner,” and I’m not much on these things…I didn’t own a tux or anything and didn’t much want to rent one. She said they want you to induct Ed Bruce into the Hall of Fame, and Ed is a dear friend of mine…I’d do anything for him. I said ok we’ll go. We’re sittin’ in there and they started playing Louvin Brothers music on the loudspeaker. And I see Ed Bruce walkin’ up toward the stage. Well I knew we’d been had. Ed was presenting The Louvin Brothers. They tricked me, but it was a nice night…and this gentleman, Thomas Dorsey, a black man who wrote a song called “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” was inducted that night…and the way he wrote it was extremely unique. He was a minister, and he was supposed to preach for a revival in St. Louis-he lived in Memphis at the time-and his wife was extremely pregnant. According to the doctor…well he thought that Dorsey would be able to preach at the revival and be back home in time for the birth of the child-so he went. The service had just started and someone brought him a note that said that they had saved the child, but lost his wife. He told this story when they inducted him. And on the way home from St. Louis, he wrote that song…”Take my hand precious Lord and lead me home…” I thought that was probably one of the most touching stories I’d ever heard.
So you were already familiar with Dorsey’s songs before that night?
I don’t know what other songs he wrote, and I’m sure he wrote a buncha others…but that song was one of the songs that we sang as kids at church-and even learned to sing it to a bunch of heathens. So it was well worth the trip.
So Ed Bruce called you up onstage…that night is always a nice occasion for songwriters. Are you still close with him?
Yes, and he’s a helluva dove hunter…he’ll tell you that I’m the reason that he came back to Nashville.
Do you guys still go dove hunting?
Yeah, out at his place. He’s got four or five hundred acres west of Nashville. We used to go every year but I missed this past year.
Are you and Ed about the same age?
No…he’s younger. Hell I don’t know anybody that’s still alive though! I’m 79.
But still truckin’ and recording huh? Look at Eddy Arnold…
Yeah, he’s well past 80.
He just put out an album too!
Yep, and Jimmy Dickens is past 80. He’s approaching 90 real quick. You know Capitol has Merle Haggard back on the label? I think classic country music is pretty much holding its own right now. In fact I hear more songs on the radio these days that get back to the classic country.
Yeah it seems to be a cyclical thing don’t you think?
Well it still feels like a lot of music today…has become generic. I’m not knocking any of them, but I’ll bet there are about 20 girls out there, and they could play any one of them…and I could guess 10 or 12 times and still not get it right. The music sounds like a canned tune that everybody uses; they use the same pickers and it’s almost monotonous.
I’ll agree with you to a strong degree.
There are no Ernest Tubbs, no Red Foleys…no Hank Snows. You [used to be able to] listen to a tune and call the artist [snaps fingers] just like that. I think that it’s sad-a sad commentary.
Are you writing songs still?
I don’t write a whole lot of songs anymore. I did for a while. I wrote this one song-I’m probably the only person to bring a question to “home sweet home”-but I wrote this song called “Is Home Sweet Home?” And it told about everything that would-seemingly-make a happy home, but it wasn’t a happy home. I sang it for Randy Travis at the Opry one night and he said that he loved the song. He said to bring it to his publisher or producer. So I took it to his producer and he said, “Well it’s not really what we’re looking for. It’s just too country [laughs].
After having a lot of success writing with your brother Ira for Louvin albums, how has the solo writing evolved and affected your process?
Everybody knows that my brother was the gifted writer.
Stop being modest Mr. Louvin.
No, I really believe that songwriters are born. I gave him a lot of…well, any songwriter needs an idea to write. I gave him ideas. I listened to radio quite a lot. Take the song “Just Suppose,” which is probably one of the stronger songs we did; the preacher was preaching one morning about the different reasons that people didn’t go to church. He said a lot of people didn’t go to church because they’ve got little ones, and the little ones might embarrass and annoy the congregation-and possibly tick the preacher off. I said, “Well, what if God saw it fit to remove your excuse.” You know, that your children would pass away. And children are a blessing, and it’s a beautiful thing to be able to have them. It would just be too big of a loss to have your excuse removed-your children, just removed. You shouldn’t feel that way about your children. And the song just says that it’s the wrong way to think. Ira wrote that song as quick as he could write a postcard to his mother.
So he took your idea and channeled it into that song?
The title of the song was mine, but he knew how to write it…Between Sand Mountain, Alabama and Scottsboro was the Tennessee River, and there was a ferry…You crossed the river on this ferry. At the very top of Sand Mountain you could see the river. There was a bridge. I said, “I see a bridge!” He pulled over to the side and wrote, “I see a bridge, a way to cross to the other side.” It would just show up. You might learn how to be a better writer, but you can’t learn how to write.
Well what are some songs in recent memory that have really stuck with you?
“Riding With Private Malone” is one. The idea came from somewhere…I don’t know where it came from, but somebody dropped that idea-and it’s a wail of a story. I like that song, “Hello this is Austin calling” ["Austin," written by Kirsti Manna, recorded by Blake Shelton]. I don’t like songs that present impossibilities. Well I wrote one, “If It’s Impossible.” We can’t fly, except for in an airplane.
Staying with this impossibility idea…being harmful to a song’s believability.
Well I think that’s one of the reasons that most Louvin Brothers songs have lived more than 50 years-because they challenge you. Especially, the Gospel songs challenge you to be a better person. And I think the songs stand on their own; if they’ve got [the believability], they will stand the test of time. I would usually kick things off with an idea, Ira would get his guitar and play a D, I would follow him on the guitar, and I was pretty good with the lyrics sometimes. I could tell where the tune was going by listening to his tenor, but if I didn’t get it, he would wad up the lyric sheet and throw it in the trash. He’d say, “I’ll write another one.” A lotta times I’d get the paper out of the trash can and iron it out. Two or three weeks later I’d tell him to show me the tune on this one or that one again, and it’d turn out to be a great tune. He was a very lacking on patience. He’d work on one little thing, like a carving, for two months. When you dealt with him it was, “You know it right now or you’re not gonna know it.” No second chance.
Emmylou had her first hit with the Louvins’ “If I Could Only Win Your Love,” right?
Yes. That was her first No. 1. She had recorded other [Louvin] songs; she recorded “You’re Learning,” “When I Stop Dreaming”… and she married an Englishman…He said, “You’re just spinning your wheels recording these guys’ songs, old songs.” But what she recorded had to live on. If you are an artist, the song is it. I don’t care, you can put the greatest arrangement on the worst song that’s ever been done, but it’s still a bad song. You’re playing with your career. I don’t care who writes the song. I try my best to find the best song. I don’t care who the writer is. If I think it’s the best song I’ll do it. I think that any artist that doesn’t get the best that he can find is messing with their career. The chickens will come home to roost.
It seems simple but for some reason it gets clouded sometimes; just cut great songs.
I’ve recorded a load of Bill Anderson, Dallas Frazier and Curly Putman songs…Kris Kristofferson. Nobody’s ever lived that wrote a girl and boy song with as much feeling as Kristofferson. When I met Kris he was a freak of nature. He was cleaning the ash trays at Columbia Records. And I had become a solo artist around 1962 or so and was recording for Columbia. He [came up one day] and whispered to me, “I’ve got a song that you would like. Would you listen to it?” I said, “Go put it in that box.” And he laid the tape down with the words. And the studio guys said, “What’s up next?” I picked it up and looked at it… “I’m Always on the Outside Looking In”… I put it in the tape player, listened to it a couple times and recorded it.
Wow I haven’t heard about this. That was early.
The first Kristofferson song to get cut! When he was inducted to the Songwriters Hall of Fame, his memory was good enough to remember that. He said, “That little bastard cut that song 10 minutes after he first heard it.” Everybody ha-ha’ed about it, but…
And he just took off as a songwriter a few years down the road didn’t he?
Yeah he became a great one. You know Ed Bruce still says that I’m the reason that he lives in the Nashville area, but I don’t totally agree with that because the cream always comes to the top. If this guy doesn’t sign you, another guy will-if you’re good. The cream always rises to the top. The best artist, sooner or later, will find their way to the top. Talent is what it should always be about. I respect talent. The cleverest statement I ever heard made-was Chet Atkins. He was working with this guy, and Chet was picking, and he just made it look so easy. And the guy said, “Mr. Atkins, I’d give a million dollars if I could play like that.” Chet without ever stopping said, “Would you give 65 years?” This guy just walked away. That’s how long Chet had been perfecting this. That’s a statement.
Right, it’s a combination of talent, hard work and a handful of other stuff thrown in the mix?
Anything that you do, you have to pay a price to be good at it. If you screw up, it applies to that to. There’s a price to pay in life if you want to be something. You have to study hard to beat the guy who would like to have your job. When my brother and I were growing up-and there wasn’t any money to be made in Alabama-we used to work for those gigs. You know, if somebody was having a party or something, we’d say, “Well…do you have any entertainment. No? Well, we’ll do it!” I was 10 when we started playing all these little cakewalks and parties, and they wanted you to stand in the corner and just keep the music going.
Do you remember when you wrote your first song?
The first two songs that we wrote were about my girlfriend…Her name was Nell. One was called “A Tiny Broken Heart.” Dan Tyminski [Alison Krauss's guitarist, Soggy Bottom Boy and more] recorded it.
You’re kidding. Your first song?
A “Tiny Broken Heart” tells a story of this seven-year-old, and he’s been told that his girlfriend next door is moving away. He told his daddy to buy the farm so she can stay there, and he says that he’ll give him all the pennies in the penny bank. He had pennies that his girlfriend had helped him save, and here he is [offering them up] to try and buy the farm. I know that’s impossible…but he had a dream. Later, the girl was older and actually moved back to town. I was about 14 when I wrote it. That was Nelly.
So you wrote it when you were 14 about when you were seven? Jeez.
But we don’t know what could have been…I think one of the best songs this century is “Unanswered Prayers” by Garth Brooks [written by Pat Alger, Larry Bastian and Brooks].
That’s funny, just yesterday I was thinking about how purely great that song is.
I mean, I had this girlfriend, Nelly, and I didn’t see her for years and years. I read about her but never touched her you know? I used to dream about her. But I got to meet back up with her years later, in 1968. She was living with her fifth husband in Mobile.
That’s my hometown.
She said, “Why don’t you meet me on the other side of the causeway?” At the motel or something. She’s very clever. I bought her some clothes and all that stuff, and was just so excited to see her again. Well…she acted just like a call girl. She took her clothes off probably as fast as I could mine. And since then, I’ve just thought of her as…
No more dreams about her I bet.
I never dreamed about her again. But it took that to get it out of my system. She was just a gold digger. She liked anybody with a few bucks.
“Unanswered Prayers” hits it home there. So many people can relate to that.
It sure does. You gotta be careful what you wish for.
Is there a song you wish you had written?
We got so hung up on “Borrowed Angel” [a 1972 Top 10 hit writtin/recorded by Mel Street]. We played that song so many times. It’s just…well it’s downright mean. Mel’s wife wanted to get a divorce. He didn’t want a divorce, under any circumstances. So he called his brother up in West Virginia and he and his wife came to, you know, help talk Mel’s wife out of all this. They were all at the breakfast table, just talking about Mel’s concerns and on and on, and the girls had just fixed a nice breakfast. Well…Mel just walked upstairs and shot himself. God he was such a young man. Damn determined he wasn’t going to get a divorce.
There’s a song, for sure.