There are two things in this life no one can escape: God and family. Whether you believe in a higher power or the power of the blood in your veins, all three are inextricably tied together. No one understood this, and all its undertones, more than Ira and Charlie Louvin. Together, the Louvin Brothers became, and remain one of the most influential duos in country and gospel music. Despite their constantly upturned gaze, they stumbled along the path all mortals find themselves on, only to continue lamenting for something even they couldn’t obtain.
From the beginning, they were musicians. Raised in a household that was always filled with the sounds of the Opry on the radio, or hymn tunes on the piano, Ira and Charlie Loudermilk couldn’t escape their fate. At a young age, they learned how to harmonize with each other, often laying on the floor beneath their parents bed, facing away from each other. In this way, they learned how to follow and exchange sounds without needing to look at each other. They both picked up instruments early as well, Ira choosing mandolin, and Charlie later picking up guitar. Encouraged by their parents, they took up singing in church, developing a sound similar to groups such as The Delmore Brothers, The Blue Sky Boys and The Monroe Brothers.
By the time they were in their teens, they were holding down a regular gig at the county fair in Pisgah, AL, playing on the Merry-Go-Round. This was 1941, making Charlie 14 and Ira 17. Paid $3 each per day, they considered themselves well off for the times. Within a year, they were appearing on a local radio station in Knoxville and Chattanooga, playing alongside The Foggy Mountain Boys in 1943. Their career was put on hold when Charlie was called to serve in WWII. After the war ended, it was back to work; 1947 saw more radio time, and the official change of their last name to “Louvin” (a seemingly more professional name). Branching out for work in Memphis, and continuing their appearances in Knoxville and Chattanooga, they began cutting records. 1947 saw them with Apollo, while 1949 brought them over to Decca. During 1951-1952 they signed on with MGM, but the military tapped Charlie for service yet again, this time sending him to Korea. During all this time, they were auditioning for the Grand Ole Opry relentlessly, only to be rejected at every turn.
Charlie returned home for a second time in 1953 and this time, they signed a deal with Capitol Records, which would remain their label for the next 10 years. By 1955, the Louvins were making a transition from the purely gospel field to a more secularized brand of music. They had their first hit in 1955 with “When I Stop Dreaming”, which was followed by a tour with fledgling legend, Elvis Presley. Tired of being passed over by the Opry, they had Ken Nelson, A/R man at Capitol talk to Jack Stapp. According to Charlie, this is what happened:
“Finally, I called our A&R man Ken Nelson, and asked him if he knew anybody at the Opry and he said ‘I know Jack Stapp, he’s the boss.’ So Ken called Jack Stapp, and I don’t know what was said, but evidently, Jack Stapp stuttered. And so Ken said ‘If you don’t want ’em, the Ozark Jubilee does.’ Of course, that was kind of a white lie. And Jack said, ‘No, we don’t need anybody else defecting to Springfield, Missouri. So they start this Friday night.'”
The careers of a pair of gospel singing brothers took off with a little white lie…
The 50s rolled along with more success, but with the advent of rock and roll, it became harder and harder to stay on the cutting edge. The music of the Louvins was being passed up by the music of young upstarts like Elvis, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard. It was exciting and new. It was born in and bred more of the teenage craze that was sweeping the nation. Country music as everyone new it was becoming old news, and things needed to change. With the release of singles such as “My Baby’s Gone”, “Don’t Laugh” and “Plenty Of Everything But You”, their sound began to change. It was suggested by Nelson that the mandolin be dropped from their act, adding instead a rockabilly feel. This rocked Ira’s already fragile ego, driving him further down into the bottle. It was no secret that his alcoholism was a problem, often showing through onstage. When he was sober, he was unstoppable as a talent, and a great guy to be around. Once he fell off the wagon, it was anyone’s guess. From smashing up his mandolin onstage, to sabotaging the tour with Elvis (calling him a “white nigger” whose music was “trash”), Ira was spiraling out of control with each new year.
Despite moving into the world of secular music, they never let go of their gospel leanings, with many of their songs having a Christian and/or moral message attached. Their most familiar album, and the one with possibly the best album cover of all time, was released in 1959. Satan Is Real is the crux of their beliefs and backgrounds, dipped in their deepest fears of damnation and glazed with a white-hot notion of redemption. The cover is laughable, with the brothers in white suits against a backdrop of rocks and flaming old tires, complete with 12-foot plywood Satan, holding court over the whole mess. Whether or not you agree with the theme of the album, doesn’t matter. Within the grooves you will be subjected to the true sense of what the Louvins had to offer. Their own lives, their own fears, their own failures are laid out in the songs, all under the guise of a story. Ira was the one who designed the cover, Ira was the one who would speak the recitations in each gospel number, never sounding preachy, but never offering the words as a light-hearted joke either. It has been said that he was tormented by the fact that he had forsaken a calling to the ministry for a calling into music. If so, he spent the rest of his life trying to exorcise those demons.
The Louvins continued working together until 1963, when Charlie finally called it quits. After years of fighting, years of watching Ira lose to the bottle, and years of having to clean up his mess, he had enough. Each went onto solo careers, Charlie being much more successful. His first solo hit was “I Don’t Love You Anymore” in 1964, followed by a succession of others throughout the 60s. Ira went on to record one solo album, The Unforgettable Ira Louvin, in 1964. Right after his break with Charlie, he got in a fight with his wife of the time that almost ended his life. In a drunken rage, he attempted to strangle her with a cord, before she grabbed a gun and shot him multiple times in the chest. Surviving the shooting, but not the marriage, they divorced, and after remarrying and releasing his solo record, he died June 20, 1965 in an automobile accident.
The Louvin Brothers helped define a pivotal moment in American music history. They were right there as rock and roll began, taking their traditional heritage and passing it on to musicians such as The Everly Brothers, with their close harmony singing, all the way down the line to Gram Parsons and The Byrds in the late 60s. In fact, a Louvin song kicks off their 1968 album, Sweetheart of the Rodeo
. “The Christian Life” brings the close-knit vocal stylings of Ira and Charlie into a modern arena, with jangly electric guitars and pedal steel, part of an offering widely considered to be the first official country-rock album. Parsons continued drawing from the Louvins in his solo work, recording “Cash On The Barrelhead” for his posthumous release of Grievous Angel.
In recent years, Charlie has continued recording, continued touring, and has been introduced to newer, younger audiences, via shows with bands such as Cake and Cheap Trick in 2003. And so it goes with music that stands the test of time: at some point, the artist creates it and lets it go, all to find out that it has gone beyond what they could have imagined, eventually finding its way back to the artist in the end. That is the stuff of legend.