SCOTT SIMON, host:
Most musicians feel free to start winding down a bit by the time they reach 80. Charlie Louvin has just released a new CD. He was one-half of the celebrated Louvin Brothers, one of the hottest acts in country music in the late 1950s. While the band broke up more than 40 years ago and Ira Louvin died, the Louvin Brothers have remained an inspiration to younger generations of musicians. And it's those younger players and fans who have called Charlie Louvin back to the stage. Charlie Louvin turns 80 years old today.
Craig Havighurst of member station WPLN has this profile.
CRAIG HAVIGHURST: Country music stars wouldn't mind being put out the pasture so much if it was this pasture - the former farm near Nashville. It's now home to the colossal Bonnaroo Music Festival.
Unidentified Man: Country music hall of famer, Mr. Charlie Louvin.
HAVIGHURST: In a straw hat and blue golf shirt, Louvin could be the grandfather of most of those in the crowd - a shaggy, sun-baked crew still shaking themselves awake after three days of music and a long Saturday night.
Despite the gulf in age and style, Louvin reached across with songs that date from this own 20s.
(Soundbite of song, "You're Running Wild")
Mr. CHARLIE LOUVIN (Singer): (Singing) You were running wild. How long can this go on. You're leaving me alone and running wild.
And I watched the people. I'm a people watcher. And a lot of them today knew the songs as good as I did, and that is a great honor.
HAVIGHURST: Charlie Louvin has made this connection numerous times over the past year while on an unlikely late career adventure - opening for rock bands Cake and Cheap Trick. Louvin says this recent wave of success and attention came to him more or less out of the blue through an instant message from Cake singer John McCrea.
Mr. LOUVIN: 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. 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.
HAVIGHURST: By the time the tour was over, Louvin was singing duets with members of both bands, and feeling adored by a new generation. But this has happened before.
(Soundbite of music)
HAVIGHURST: Though the Louvin Brothers broke up in 1963, they were reintroduced to record buyers in the 1970s, when country rocker Gram Parsons brought their songs to collaborators Emmylou Harris and The Byrds.
(Soundbite of song, "Christian Life")
THE BYRDS: (Singing) My buddies tell me that I should have waited. And they say I'm missing a whole world of fun.
Mr. LOUVIN: I owe him but he's not with us anymore so the only way that I can repay him is to mention his name and see if the people here today liked what Gram was pushing.
(Soundbite of song, "Christian Life")
THE BYRDS: (Singing) I won't lose a friend by heeding God's call. For what is a friend who'd want you to fall. Others find pleasures in things I despise. I like the Christian life.
HAVIGHURST: Louvin's current disciple in chief is 40-year-old Josh Rosenthal who signed Charlie to his Tompkins Square label in New York. Rosenthal says, in Louvin, he saw an artist with a past, present and future.
Mr. JOSH ROSENTHAL (Founder, Tompkins Square Records): You know, this is somebody who Johnny Cash came to a Louvin Brothers show in Diaz, Arkansas, as a teenager, as a fan, you know, and met Charlie there. And you know, Charlie rubbed shoulders with Hank Williams in the MGM Studios. So that's the kind of person we're dealing. And it is like, there's not that many people left to have seen what he has seen and experience what he has experienced.
HAVIGHURST: One of the first people Rosenthal went to in setting up the album's promotion was Mike Grimes, owner of Grimey's New & Preloved Music and a barometer of trends in Nashville's independent music scene. He arranged an in-store performance by Louvin a couple of months ago and Grimes says, he was surprised at the depth of his own reaction.
Mr. MIKE GRIMES (Owner, Grimey's New & Preloved Music): I remember as I was watching the performance and I was thinking like, man, there are 20 people off the top of my head that I wish were here, who are in local bands and maybe, you know, striving to carve out a career. And I'm going, anybody who's - who has an interest in music and a music career should look at somebody like Charlie Louvin for inspiration - and to see somebody who can do it and do it really, really well. I mean, I was brought to tears.
HAVIGHURST: Charlie Louvin's new disc features guest artists only such a legend could attract - country icons George Jones and Tom T. Hall. Plus such modern-day alternative country and rock stars as Will Oldham, Elvis Costello and Jeff Tweedy of the band Wilco. Tweedy joins Charlie on the Louvin Brothers' Cold War classic "Great Atomic Power."
(Soundbite of song "Great Atomic Power")
Mr. LOUVIN: (Singing) Do you fear this man's invention that they call atomic power? Are we all in great confusion? Do we know the time or hour when a terrible explosion may rain down upon our land leading horrible destruction, blotting out the works of man? Are you ready…
Mr. JEFF TWEEDY (Singer): (Singing) Are you ready…
Mr. LOUVIN and Mr. TWEEDY: (Singing) …for that great atomic power? Will you rise and meet your Savior in the air? Will you shout or will you cry when the fire rains from on high? Are you ready for that great atomic power?
HAVIGHURST: As the apocalyptic imagery suggests, the Louvin Brothers often infused secular country songs with their gospel roots. As Charlie says today, there's an awful lot of morality in Louvin Brothers' songs - paradox, too.
Ira Louvin, the duo's chief songwriter, was a combustible alcoholic who died violently in a car wreck in 1965. Charlie, though, dwells on the redeeming side of their relationship in his tribute, "Ira."
(Soundbite of song "Ira")
Mr. LOUVIN: (Singing) Alabama to the Opry was the second hardest road. The worst was me losing you and singing all alone. Ira, I still hear you out in the distant your sweet harmony.
HAVIGHURST: Another guest on the CD was latter-day country icon and preservationist Marty Stuart.
Mr. MARTY STUART (Country Singer; Preservationist): Well, I was simply called to play the mandolin on some songs. Basically what that means is that I would stand in Ira Louvin's spot at the microphone.
(Soundbite of music)
HAVIGHURST: He says Louvin is the latest in a string of country legends like Loretta Lynn and Porter Wagoner who have found late career success working with younger producers and playing to younger audiences.
Mr. STUART: 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. 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.
HAVIGHURST: Louvin should be quite lively in the coming weeks. His birthday plans include another in-store at Grimey's, an appearance on the Grand Ole Opry and the famous Ernest Tubb "Midnite Jamboree."
Mr. LOUVIN: I enjoy what I do. And I think if you enjoy what you do it's not work. I'm planning to continue as long as the boss man will give me the breath to stay on key. If I can't sing on key then it's time to go.
HAVIGHURST: Not yet, though. Throughout July, Charlie Louvin opens for singer and songwriter Lucinda Williams.
For NPR News, I'm Craig Havighurst in Nashville.
(Soundbite of song "Worried Man Blues")
Mr. LOUVIN (Singing) If anyone asked you who composed this song, if anyone asked you who composed this song, if anyone asked you who composed this song, tell him it was I and I'm singing all day long.
SIMON: You can compare songs from Charlie Louvin's new CD with their older renditions at npr.org/music.
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.