In the world of digital downloads and CDs, old records are becoming harder to come by. If you're trying to find a copy of Michael Jackson's Thriller or Bob Dylan's Nashville Skyline on vinyl, you'd be well served with a trip to a local thrift shop. But you can hit every garage sale and thrift store from here to Kalamazoo and still not find a Louvin Brothers record. The folks who own them are not giving them up. Legend has it that Gram Parsons would pay people to scour pawnshops and record stores in California for Louvin Brothers' records--and that was in the late '60s and early '70s, when the LP was still king. Since then, finding the Louvin Brothers on vinyl has become even harder. Their records were (and still are) guarded by their owners with the love and devotion of the main character in Nick Hornby's High Fidelity.
It's not like the Louvin Brothers--Ira and Charlie--didn't make many records: quite the contrary. From the early 1950s through 1964, the Louvin Brothers were one of country music's hottest commodities. They became members of the Grand Ole Opry in 1955 and even had Elvis Presley as their opening act.
Together, the Louvins essentially defined the close-harmony gospel-style in country music. All Music Guide (www.allmusic.com) has written of the Louvin Brothers as "among the top duos in country music history." Musicians from a number of genres--including Johnny Cash, Gram Parsons, The Byrds, Emmylou Harris, Uncle Tupelo, Beck and The Raconteurs--have covered Louvin Brothers' songs. Part of their appeal is that their song topics rarely deviated from death, heartache, faith and the eternal battle of man over sin--and their songs addressed these subjects with depth and honesty. The brothers were firm believers in the message they sang about. Charlie has said that thousands of fans sent letters declaring that the Louvin Brothers' music turned them around and, in essence, "saved them."
In 1965, at the age of 41, Ira Louvin died in a car crash--forever closing the door on any further Louvin Brother releases. Ira was always the more rambunctious of the two brothers: He was a notorious drinker and rabble-rouser, while Charlie was more reserved.
Though his brother and partner of many years was gone, Charlie carried on the tradition. Going mostly the solo route, he also occasionally sang with other country musicians such as Emmylou Harris. With each new release, Louvin further cemented his status as a living legend.
This past February saw the release of a self-titled album by Louvin, hisfirst record in over a decade. The album has brought together a leveling list of guest musicians. There are, of course, a couple of other country legends, including Tom T. Hall and George Jones. Other contributors include Kurt Wagner of Lambchop, Will Oldham, Jeff Tweedy and Elvis Costello. Though it could be said that Louvin does not really need the indie adoration--he stands well enough on his own--the indie community has welcomed Louvin with open arms (he played SXSW this year and will be making an appearance at Bonnaroo). Even the critical curmudgeons at Pitchfork Media have a soft spot for Louvin, saying of his voice and the new album, "Most of all it sounds lonely, as if it were created by God specifically to harmonize with his brother Ira Louvin ... the 80-year-old country music veteran has the warm and easy authority of someone who has spent his entire life with these songs; he knows every word, every melody, every implication by heart."
The new album is filled with Louvin Brothers' standards, including "Great Atomic Power" and "Kneeling Drunkard's Plea." With the array of hipster musicians playing and singing with Louvin, fans might expect a release designed to gain a younger audience--a release with a more contemporary sound. This is not the case. Barring the semi-bewildering blasts of guitar feedback by Tweedy on "Great Atomic Power," the songs are extremely faithful to the originals.
The album, as a whole, is an affirmation of Louvin's continued significance. Though the Louvin Brothers were the country music gold standard, albeit a type of country music that barely exists in today's musical landscape, Louvin's voice in 2007 is a well-worn instrument--imagine Willie Nelson's guitar Trigger as a singing voice--and its sound confirms the fragility of the human condition that he sings about.
On the phone, Louvin does not sound fragile at all. He talks with wit and aspryness that belies his age. When Boise Weekly talked with Louvin on the second day of his national tour, he sounded excited about being on the road again: "Things are going good. We opened in Kentucky last night. Tonight we're in Kansas City ... then up to your house," Louvin continues. "We gotta great band going: bass, flattop rhythm, lead, and a drummer. And a bus driver and a bus. When we played at a 7,000-square-foot record store last night, there was a mix of people, young and old. We sold about 100 CDs, which is pretty good."
It's Louvin's brother who is sorely missed on his new record. Even with all of the great voices accompanying him, the absence of Ira's voice leaves a hole in many of the songs on the new release. But Ira's been gone a long time, and since his death, Charlie's efficacy has served him well. "Basically life's a bitch," he says. "We all suffer losses. I lost my brother, my sister, and my mom and dad. For me, Momma was the big one. You think you've lost something 'til you lose your mother," says Louvin warmly. "But you just keep on."
In the days of Pro Tools and studio fixing, Louvin has shown to be an adaptable character. In an interview with James Calemine of Swampland.com, when asked if there was anything that has been especially hard to learn in today's musical world, he replies, "Some of the business hasn't been that hard to learn ... it's a few of the things I was supposed to unlearn ... 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 [Ira and Charlie] 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."
Louvin is happy with the new record. "I think it is perfect," he says. "It's impossible to get that many people in the studio at the same time ... I think it's great that I was able to make a record with all of them."
In the end, the messages of redemption are given legitimacy by someone who has been around awhile. After nearly eight decades, Louvin truly understands the advice he's been known to give out: "Time changes everything. If you be patient, it'll happen."
Charlie Louvin plays in-store at Record Exchange April 7, 4 p.m., FREE; then he plays Neurolux, 9 p.m., $18.: Record Exchange, 1105 W. Idaho St., 208-344-8010; Neurolux, 111 N. 11th St., 208-343-0886, www.neurolux.com.