Charlie Louvin's career covered half of the 20th century and a full decade of the 21st. His fans ranged from devout Christians to hard-drinking country-music fans to crowds at Bonnaroo.
"Johnny Cash came to a Louvin Brothers show in Dyess, Ark., as a teenager, as a fan, you know, and met Charlie there," Josh Rosenthal told NPR in 2007. Rosenthal is the head of Tompkins Square Records, Louvin's label for the last five years. "Charlie rubbed shoulders with Hank Williams in the MGM Studios. So that's the kind of person we're dealing with. There's not that many people left who have seen what he has seen and experienced what he has experienced."
Louvin died early Wednesday at his home in Wartrace, Tenn., at 83. He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in the summer of 2010. Surgery proved unsuccessful, but Louvin continued to perform.
Louvin was a Country Music Hall of Famer and the oldest living member of the Grand Ole Opry, having joined in 1955 with his brother Ira.
Their given name was Loudermilk and they grew up in Alabama. The close harmony duo they developed out of the "shape note singing" of their church went on to become hugely influential in country music, as well as pop and rock. When you hear the Everly Brothers' "All I Have to Do Is Dream," you're hearing the influence of the Louvin Brothers' harmonies.
"We knew we loved duet singing," Charlie Louvin told NPR in 1996. "We loved the Blue Sky Boys. We loved the Delmore Brothers ... and even the Monroe Brothers [as in mandolinist Bill Monroe and his brother, guitarist Charlie Monroe]. And so we knew if we ever became a duet that we would want to play the mandolin and the guitar ... we just didn't know which one would play the mandolin or which one would play the guitar until we got old enough to be able to afford one or the other of the instruments. ... So finally [Ira] said, 'Well, I'll go buy me a mandolin, and you're going to have to learn the guitar.'"
They started playing and singing together on early-morning radio in the 1940s.
"And the people all down in Alabama, they're up doing their chores at that time of the morning," Louvin said. "Mama was always cooking breakfast ... and Papa was out feeding the stock and milking the cow. And so they got to hear the show."
It was about that time that they changed their performing name to the Louvin Brothers. They became gospel stars with the 1952 song "The Family Who Prays." But the song that took them beyond their loyal gospel audience was "When I Stop Dreaming," which became a Top 10 hit in 1955. Elvis Presley was their opening act for part of that year.
From then through the early '60s, the Louvin Brothers had a string of hits that balanced sacred and secular themes, but Ira Louvin struggled to live the kind of life he sang about. He threw fits on stage — sometimes smashing his mandolin — and his drinking caused the brothers to break up in the summer of 1963. They both went solo, though Charlie said he hoped they'd get back together. He always felt his brother's presence on stage.
"When I sing a song like ["In the Pines"], at a microphone at a stage show in the front of an audience, I will, when it comes time for the harmony to come in, I'll move left a little unconsciously," Louvin said. He was always waiting for his brother to step up to the mic.
Ira Louvin was killed in a car accident — hit by a drunken driver in Missouri — in 1965. Country-music legend has it that beside his car, his body was found on its knees, as if in prayer.
Charlie Louvin continued to perform as a solo artist through the '60s, scoring a Top 5 hit with "I Don't Love You Anymore" in 1964, followed by six more hits and 12 albums. Then the Louvin Brothers were rediscovered by a generation of rockers at the end of that decade. Gram Parsons brought the Louvins' songs to his collaborators Emmylou Harris and The Byrds, who recorded "The Christian Life" for their seminal country-rock LP Sweetheart of the Rodeo in 1968.
The depth of feeling Louvin expressed through his songs and those he recorded with his brother was such that he enjoyed a second rediscovery at the end of the century, thanks to another generation of rockers. In 2003, he opened for such bands as Cake and Cheap Trick. Louvin told NPR in 2007 that the revival of interest in his music was unexpected; it began with an instant message from Cake singer John McCrea.
"He said they were going to do a 22- or 23-day tour, wondering if I wanted to be on two or three of them," Louvin said. "And I'm sure that he hadn't got up from his stool in front of his computer until he got his answer because I — as quick as it came in — I answered it and said, not only would I like to be on two or three of them; I'd like to be on the whole 23 days. And that's how it started."
He released his first album in more than a decade in 2007 for Tompkins Square, titled Charlie Louvin. It included guest spots from some of his admirers: George Jones, Tom T. Hall, Will Oldham, Elvis Costello, Jeff Tweedy and Marty Stuart, who — in a 2007 NPR interview — compared Louvin's comeback to those of Loretta Lynn and Porter Wagoner.
"It's beautiful when somebody comes along and tells a Charlie or a Porter or a Loretta that it's okay to be you again," Stuart said. "And they are totally equipped for it. All they need is a round of applause and a reason to go to a spotlight and they come back to life. I've watched Charlie come back to life again."
A new generation of fans got to see it, too. Now we'll just wait for the next Louvin revival — the power of the music ensures that there will be one.