On a warm and generous day in the autumn of 2003 country gentleman Charlie Louvin took me on a tour of the Louvin Brothers Museum in Bell Buckle, Tenn. (pop. 1,000).
Charlie saved everything, including a miniature church that his brother Ira hand carved from plywood. The church featured a tiny pulpit and poplar figurines that depicted a five-voice African-American choir and African-American preacher. When the Tennessee light hit the church just right you could peek through a tiny window and see an open grave under the church. Charlie told me Ira made the folk art in 1950 after hearing Red Foley's "Steal Away"
Charlie Louvin died Wednesday of complications of pancreatic cancer. He was 83.
His wife Betty was a partner in time.
She assembled a museum wall montage of more than 50 Louvin Brothers '45s as well as Charlie's singles. Betty and Charlie were married 61 years.
I bet Betty saved a song for every year of their marriage..........
.......The Bell Buckle moment I will never forget was when Charlie stopped near a black and white photograph of the Grand Ole Opry in 1957. There were more than 60 Opry members in the photo. Charlie had affixed small black dots near the faces of the Opry members who died.
The picture was full of black dots.
I've interviewed hundreds of country-western musicans and few cared as deeply about country music as Charlie Louvin.
He joined the Opry in 1955 and was its oldest living member. He performed at the Opry until the early summer of 2010 when his cancer kicked in. He was only a handful of Nashville musicians to attend the 1996 visitiation of Opry star Faron Young, who had committed suicide. I was there and saw Charlie clutch a small camera on the lonely hilltop of the Woodlawn Memorial Gardens in Nashville.
In 2003 Charlie introduced the Louvin Brothers to a new audience as a member of the Unlimited Sunshine Tour, curated by Cake's John McCrea. Besides Louvin, the 2003 edition of the tour included Cheap Trick, the Detroit Cobras and the Hackensaw Boys. Charlie was apprehensive, but after only three days on the tour he was re-working Louvin Brothers duets with McCrea. The Detroit Cobras kept bugging Charlie to collaborate on Bill Monroe songs.
Emmylou Harris first hit the charts in 1975 with her cover of the Louvin's' "If I Could Only Win Your Love." The Byrds with Gram Parsons covered the Louvin's "The Christian Life" on their 1968 genre-bending "Sweetheart of the Rodeo" record. In 1993 Bruce Springsteen was encoring with the Louvin's "Satan's Jeweled Crown."
The Louvin Brothers were the most influential harmony group in country music history.
In a period of Eisenhower-era optimism, the Louvins' gospel-influenced material was foreboding. They delivered songs like the Carter Family's "The Kneeling Drunkard's Plea" and originals such as "Satan is Real" from the deepest parts of their souls.
In 1956 they released "Tragic Songs of Life" for Capitol. The record included downers like "What Is a Home Without Love," popularized by BIll and Charlie Monroe and the album's biggest single, "Knoxville Girl," a traditional English folk song about a murder.
The brothers connected in music but were quite different in lifestyles.
Charlie told me he sang the verses and they collaborated on the chorus harmonies on "The Family Who Prays" recorded in 1956 as their first track for Capitol Records.
"It depended on how much Ira liked the song," he explained. "If he really liked it he wanted to lead. We never argued about that."
But Ira had the soul of a rebel rocker.
He often got the brothers fired from gigs by smashing his mandolin on stage in fits of frustration. Ira divorced his third wife, Faye, after she shot him six times in the arm, chest and shoulder. After he left the hospital, Ira formed a band with Florence, his fourth wife. She was killed with Ira in 1965 when an apparently drunk driver hit their 1963 Chevy head-on in Williamsburg, Mo.
"My brother was extremely tormented," Charlie said. "He tried to preach in every song. In a lot of the older songs, instead of singing the verses, he would talk through them. He almost sounded like a preacher. He was a miserable man. There wasn't any of his wives I could have lived with."
The tension forced the Louvin Brothers to split in 1963. Their last show was in downstate Watseka, Ill.
Charlie's solo career included 16 singles in the country Top 10 and successful duet albums with singer Melba Montgomery and the bluegrass duo Jim and Jesse.
The brothers are also know for their homemade album covers. The most popular cover was 1960's "Satan is Real," recorded for Capitol and re-released on Stetson Records in London. Charlie even sold "Satan is Real" album tee shirts at his museum.
The brothers designed their own devil-with-a-pitchfork backdrop.
In 1996 Charlie told me, "We made that backdrop out of two sheets of plywood. In fact, I removed my boy's Lionel train off one of the sheets of plywood. I'm not allowed to forget that. We built it and took it to this rock quarry near my house. We scattered a few tires around, put some pine in them and poured kerosene on them and got the fires going."
The brothers nearly became engulfed in flames.
Charlie said Ira designed the devil. "We were raised to believe that's what the devil man looked like," he said. "I don't know what happened to that prop, but I've seen the devil in a $1,000 mohair suit.
"And I'm pretty sure I've seen him in a bikini with nice legs."
The brothers grew up as Charlie and Ira Loudermilk on a 23-acre cotton farm in Henegar, Ala. Their mother, Georgianne Elizabeth , was the daughter of a Baptist preacher. She was also a gospel singer who taught her seven children how to shape notes. Charlie and Ira were the only two boys in the family. They never used instruments to learn their music.
It was all in the voice.
Charlie explained, "In church, one man would run up and down the scale and arrive at what key the song was written in. They'd all sing the notes one time through and then do the word. Most of the time they carried five part harmonies.
"When we were growing up we listened to two radio stations: WJJD out of Chicago and XERN out of Mexico. Chicago had 'The Suppertime Frolic' [created in the late 1930s by music director Ken Nelson, who went on to record Merle Haggard, Buck Owens, the Louvins and many others at Capitol.] The Mexican station had the Carter Family and everyone else that was country."
In a 2003 Johnny Cash Tribute Concert at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville former Cash bassist told the audience about the brothers impact. Grant is the last surviving member of Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Two that bolted out of Sun Records in 1955. Grant said, "All we wanted to do was gospel. We idolized the Louvin Brothers."
In the mid-2000s Charlie moved his museum from Bell Buckle (the site of the RC Cola and Moon Pie Festival) to Nashville. He carefully packed up all the records his wife had saved, Ira's pipe and a fan letter from late Alabama Gov. George Wallace. The Nashville museum closed, too. Some items can still be found at the Smokehouse restaurant in Monteagle, Tn..
But the memories live forever in the spirit of the Louvin Brothers.