The Louvin Brothers (Contemporary Musicians)
The entertainer who did most to expose a new generation of fans to the Louvin Brothers was Emmylou Harris, according to Howard Miller, the author of the biography The Louvin Brothers: From Beginning to End. Harris's recordings of "If I Could Only Win Your Love," "When I Stop Dreaming," and "Everytime You Leave" are fan favorites that highlight her clear, expressive voice. Introduced to the Louvins' music by her late musical partner Gram Parsons, she initially thought Ira's voice was that of a woman. Unhesitating in her praise, Harris lauded, "It just amazes me. I think they are the greatest duet as singers, but also their writing is phenomenal. They are really underrated today. They should be played more on the radio, they should have more visibility. Their records should be sort of a staple [of] those classics that are played on air."
The Louvins influenced other popular musicians as well, such as the bluegrass act of brothers Jim and Jesse McReynolds. Jesse first met Charlie Louvin in the U.S. Army in Korea, where they worked together in the Dusty Road Ramblers. The McReynolds brothers later landed a Capitol Records contract in the 1950s with the Louvin Brothers' song "Are You Missing Me" and released a Louvin Brothers tribute album in 1967. The Louvins also had an impact on Johnny Cash, who later helped his boyhood idol Charlie Louvin with a loan that Cash has never allowed Charlie to repay. The Louvins themselves were influenced by the brother duets of the 1930s and the Carter family. But their brand of country gospel can best be traced back to their upbringing on a farm near Henegar, Alabama, where Ira was born on April 21, 1924, and Charlie on July 7, 1927.
Ira and Charlie Loudermilk were born into a family of seven children. The two brothers were later to abandon their name because people joked about it and found it hard to spell, though their cousin John Loudermilk would have success as a songwriter without any changes. According to Charlie Louvin in Bluegrass Unlimited, their lives were always centered around music, no matter what other jobs they held. But when the boys were teenagers, their father thought that they were spending too much time with their music. As Charlie related: "At noon on Fridays, the teachers would let us open the partition separating the two rooms of the school and play for the rest of the day. We sang old songs like 'Kneel At The Cross,' 'Are You Washed in the Blood,' and other songs we had heard all our lives. When daddy found out, he decided that we might as well stay home on Fridays and help with the farming." Their father didn't disapprove of making music: he played a five-string banjo in the clawhammer banjo style of Uncle Dave Macon and Grandpa Jones. However, he believed music was for recreation, after the day's work was done, rather than a suitable profession.
The whole Loudermilk family was musical: the boys' mother sometimes played the banjo and all of their sisters sang. According to Howard Miller in The Louvin Brothers, their Uncle Verlon played guitar, fiddle, and mandolin well enough to win prizes at regional contests. The brothers were also exposed to music by listening on Saturday nights at the country store to the radio broadcasts of the Grand Ole Opry over WSM from Nashville; they also would listen at home to records of the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, Bill and Charlie Monroe, Roy Acuff and the Blue Sky Boys, The Callahan Brothers, and the Skillet Lickers.
The most important influence on the Louvin Brothers' music was the church. Their mother's family, the Wootens, were well-known Sacred Harp, or shape note, singers, who emphasized the communal singing of complex harmonies with interchangeable parts, and their annual singing gatherings were well attended. As the boys became better singers, their father encouraged them to perform for company, and eventually the boys started buying instruments and learning to play them on their own. When Ira was 19, he got his first mandolin, a Gibson F-12, from a store in Chattanooga.
Charlie was 16 before he started playing the guitar; when he was 17, he bought a half-sized model called the "Black Knight" in a Chattanooga pawn shop. In The Louvin Brothers he noted that "I am not a picker, per se. The guitar was something to help me keep the tempo and the pitch. As the years went by I became more proficient, but my guitar playing was adequate."
Making Money Making Music
The Louvins' first professional appearance was at a Fourth of July celebration in 1941 in Flat Rock, Alabama. They sat in the center of a "flying jenny, " a mule-powered merry-go-round, and played two songs during each ride. They worked all day for two dollars each. According to Suzy Geno in Bluegrass Unlimited, Ira soon married and moved to Chattanooga. Charlie joined him there, and the brothers worked at a cotton mill. After winning a weekly amateur contest at the American Theater on Broad Street three Saturdays in a row, the Louvins received the grand prize, which was a live, fifteen-minute radio show on a 250-watt station starting at 4:30 a.m. For six months, they did the show in the morning, worked all day, and then played music around the area at night.
It was a hectic period, but their success encouraged them to quit their jobs and pursue music full-time. Both men spent a short time in the service. After Charlie had spent a brief stint with Charlie Monroe's group, the brothers started work in the fall of 1946 with Cas Walker in Knoxville. Shortly thereafter they met Hack and Clyde Johnson and landed an early morning show on WNOX radio and later a spot on the Mid-Day Merry-Go-Round and the Tennessee Barn Dance each Saturday night.
In 1947 a few of their songs were published by Acuff-Rose, and they went to work with Smiling Ed Hill's radio show in Memphis. But soon Eddie Hill moved to Nashville to work at a bigger station and times grew difficult for the Louvins. Charlie had married in 1949 and had gotten used to the regular radio paychecks, so they both started work at the Memphis post office, though they continued to play on weekends anywhere they were asked.
From Country to Gospel and Back
The years of radio shows and barn dances finally paid off when the Louvins signed a contract with MGM Records in 1949. Their first album was a mixture of secular and gospel songs that didn't sell well, though it is now considered a classic, according to Shawn Ryan in the Birmingham News. In 1951 MGM dropped the group, and the same year they were signed by Capitol Records. According to Charlie Louvin: "[Capitol] said they didn't need us as a country duet, but they would hire us as gospel duet. They had Jim and Jesse and, in the old days, a label wouldn't have more than one country duet. We said, 'OK, we'll take that. Anything."'
For the next four years the Louvin Brothers recorded nothing but gospel, with such hits as "Weapon of Prayer" and "Satan is Real." Their career continued to rise and they were voted the most programmed sacred duet by BMI from 1951 through 1955. All along they had been trying to get on the Grand Ole Opry, traveling often to Nashville to audition for the show.
In 1955, they were finally hired by the Opry, where programming considerations would eventually lead them back to secular singing. The tobacco company that sponsored the show limited the number of gospel songs to two per 30-minute program, so the Louvins started singing other songs to get more air time. This led to some of the biggest hits of their career such as "Hopin' That You're Hopin'," "You're Running Wild," "I Don't Believe You Baby," and "When You Stop Dreaming."
The brothers wrote almost all of the songs that appeared on their 24 albums even though neither of them could read music. Charlie remarked in the Birmingham News that his brother Ira was the real writer: "I gave ideas and helped on lines. He definitely was the stronger part of the writing team. But he was a drinking man." Their songwriting experiences reveal some of the difficulties Ira was to have throughout his career. "He'd get to drinking and write something and just bring the words over and say, 'Get your guitar. I want to try this song.' I was supposed to know what tune he had in mind just looking at the words. A lot of times the tune was made up as we went. But if I screwed up, he'd wad it up and throw it in the trash can, saying it probably wasn't worth a damn anyway."
Likewise, in the studio, Ira would often force Charlie to sing in higher and higher keys, so that Ira could better show off his seemingly unlimited tenor. The Louvins would break up several times due to Ira's drinking, with the last time being in 1964. After the breakup Charlie started a successful solo career with such hits as "I Don't Love You Anymore," "See the Big Man Cry, Mama," and "Think I'll Go Somewhere and Cry Myself to Sleep." Ira also released a few solo records but only played a few club dates occasionally. Returning from one of those engagements, he and his fourth wife, Florence, who sang under the name of Anne Young, were killed in a car accident on Father's Day, 1965, in Missouri.
Looking back on the Louvin Brothers' career, Charlie recalled in Bluegrass Unlimited that even when the group was doing well in the late 1950s they were frustrated: "As we moved toward and into the 1960s, it seemed our records were becoming more modern sounding. On many of our recordings, they added all sorts of studio musicians and Nashville back-up singers. Ira's fantastic mandolin breaks and much of his playing was completely lost. Sometimes, we sounded almost too good to be us."
Others have also commented on the change, as a Bluegrass Unlimited writer reviewing The Best of the Early Louvin Brothers observed: "Here we have the anachronism of a brother vocal and instrumental duet recording (and selling) while the whole country music industry was reeling under the impact of the new musical sensation that was Elvis Presley." But the reviewer had a more optimistic appraisal of the result, noting that the recordings still featured the group's close and intense harmonies and high degree of conviction, and emphasizing instead the importance of the sidemen, like Ray Edenton, Willie Ackermen, Junior Husky, Paul Yandell, Jimmy Capps, and Chet Atkins, who were to become founders of the emerging Nashville Sound.
The Louvin Brother
Charlie stayed with Capitol Records through 1975 and recorded numerous successful duets with Melba Montgomery. In 1979 Charlie and Ira were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, and in 1980 Charlie had a hit single with "Ten Years, Three Kids and Two Loves Ago." He continues to play on the Grand Ole Opry and established the Louvin Brothers Music Park and Museum near Henegar, Alabama, which has been the scene of many music festivals.
Charlie Louvin balks at being called a bluegrass artist, insisting instead that he and his brother were always country singers. He suggests that what is now called country is really something else, more akin to rock and roll. Nevertheless, in Bluegrass Unlimited he talked about the importance of bluegrass and old-time music festivals in keeping what he calls country music alive: "The bluegrass festivals have proven that audiences and performers can once again feel the closeness, the togetherness, that Ira and I felt when we played and sang on Friday afternoons at Spring Hill School. It's that special feeling that folks had when they gathered on their front porch, propped their feet on the rail after a hard day's work, and sang and played away their heartaches and troubles."
Songs That Tell a Story, Rounder, 1992.
Radio Favorites 51-57, Country Music Foundation, 1993.
Tragic Songs of Life, Rounder.
Louvin Brothers, Rounder.
Miller, Howard, The Louvin Brothers: From Beginning to End, Louvin Brothers Music Park (Henegar, AL), 1986.
Birmingham News (Alabama), May 12, 1989.
Bluegrass Unlimited, March 1983; February 1987; June 1987; January 1993.
The Journal of the Academy of the Preservation of Old Time Country Music, April 1993.
Newsweek, May 18, 1987.