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TERRY GROSS, host:

Elvis opened for them. The Everly Brothers were inspired by their harmonies. The Byrds and Emmylou Harris recorded their songs.

The Louvin Brothers are considered one of the great vocal harmony duos of country music. They were popular at the Grand Ole Opry and well-represented on the country music charts from the late '50s until the mid-'60s, when the act broke up.

Brother Ira was killed in a car accident soon after. Charlie Louvin kept performing at the Opry and has continued to record. He has a new album coming out in November.

Charlie Louvin turned 83 in July. Shortly before that he was diagnosed with stage two pancreatic cancer. We send him our best wishes.

We're going to listen back to an interview we recorded in 1996, after the release of his CD "The Longest Train," featuring songs that he first recorded with his brother.

(Soundbite of song, "When I Stop Dreaming")

Mr. CHARLIE LOUVIN, BARRY AND HOLLY TASHIAN (Country Music Singers): (Singing) When I stop dreaming, that's when I'll stop loving you. The worst that I've ever been hurt in my life, the first time I ever have wanted to die, was the night when you told me, you loved someone else and you asked me if I could forget. When I stop dreaming that's when I'll stop loving you.

GROSS: Charlie Louvin, with harmonies by Barry and Holly Tashian.

I asked Louvin if it was difficult to sing without his brother's harmonies after his brother died.

Mr. LOUVIN: I had always believed that any songs worth singing is worth putting harmony on, and of course I had grown use to that for the 23 years that my brother and I had worked together. And even today, 34 years after he's gone, I - when it comes time for the harmonies to come in, I will move to my left because my brother and I always used to use one microphone and so you had to share the mic. And even today I will move over to the left to give the harmony room, knowing in my mind that there's no harmony standing on my right. But it's just old habits are hard to break.

GROSS: The harmonies that you created with your brother I think were based on the Sacred Harp singing that you used to do in church. Would describe those kinds of harmonies that come out of Sacred Harp singing or what's also known as shape-note singing?

Mr. LOUVIN: I'm not sure, Terry, that I can describe them or explain them where they'd be understood. It's just something - I dont have any musical...

(Soundbite of clearing throat)

Mr. LOUVIN: ...learning. What I know and what we did is - it just came natural for us because we was raised in a family that went to these Sacred Harp singings with regularity.

There's things that I can't explain to it. There's actually theyre doing five-part harmonies and most people today thinks that four is the limit when a quartet sings, that theyve got all the parts but the Sacred Harp or shape-note singing people use the five harmonies and some of them are extremely high with the ladies parts and none of them is low as the quartets practice today. It would be like a mid-range bass part.

GROSS: Your early recordings were gospel tunes. Many of them were originals. In fact, why dont we hear one of those originals that you co-wrote with your brother, Ira. This was made in 1952 and the song is called "The Family Who Prays."

(Soundbite of song, "The Family Who Prays")

LOUVIN BROTHERS: (Singing) The family who prays will never be parted. Their circle in Heaven unbroken shall stand. God will say enter my good faithful servant. The family who prays never shall part.

Satan has parted fathers and mothers. Filling their hearts with his envy and hate. Aiding their pathway down to destruction, leaving their children like orphans to stray. The family who prays will never be parted.

GROSS: The Louvin Brothers from 1952. Chet Atkins featured on electric guitar?

Mr. LOUVIN: Yes. Chet recorded our first Capitol record with us, and Chet is a big part of the Louvin Brothers' sound from "The Family Who Prays," right on through to the end of the Louvin Brother career.

GROSS: You were singing a lot of gospel songs early in your career. But I know your brother Ira had the reputation of being a heavy drinker and of having quite a temper. Did you share the same religious convictions? Did you live with the same kind of values or was there a big difference there?

Mr. LOUVIN: No. When, you know, a lot of us know better but we dont do better. He knew better. He is extremely well-versed on the Good Book, as far as knowing what was right or wrong. He just - he just wasnt able to conquer the devil, I guess.

But we didnt have any major problems with the drinking until I'd say end of 1958. The Louvin Brother records, the sales slowed down as all other country artists did in 1958, because the music was changing. And so, our producer told my brother, I believe that it's the mandolin that's keeping the Louvin Brother records from selling, which had always been a featured part, my brother worked hard to become proficient on the mandolin.

And when this producer, namely, Ken Nelson, said this to my brother, and my brother feeling that Mr. Nelson was a close friend and a trusted friend, he believed him. And so he would never play his mandolin again on a recording after that statement. If it would come up, somebody would say, oh, I think this would sound good with the mandolin, my brother would say, no, let the piano do it or let the guitar do it, anybody but I'm not doing it. And it caused him to drink extremely heavy and he went between then and the time he passed away, went through three wives and just lots and lots of problems that he never could whip.

GROSS: Did you start losing dates too? Did he get a reputation for drinking a lot?

Mr. LOUVIN: Unfortunately, Terry, if youre half of a duet, one person in that duet dont ever get a bad name. It's just the Louvin Brothers did this.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. LOUVIN: The Louvin Brothers did that. Anything he did, good, bad or indifferent, I was in the minds of the promoters and the radio stations and what have you, I was as guilty as he and no way that I could change it. The only way I could change it would be for us to not to be together.

And that finally happened in August 18th 1963. I just - we had gone from a pretty good career. Well, from early, the '50s, the song, "The Family Who Prays," right on up through our recordings we had done quite well and we found ourself in 1963 on the bottom of the totem pole. And that's what happened to the Louvin Brothers' career.

GROSS: I want to play another original gospel song that you recorded called "I Like the Christian Life." This is really a beautiful song. Gram Parsons loved this song and used it on The Byrds album "Sweetheart of the Rodeo." Do you remember writing this?

Mr. LOUVIN: No, I dont. Things went and come in the Louvin Brothers' career. Sometimes my brother would be a totally good man. He could've been a preacher if he wanted to. He was that knowledgeable of the Good Book and he had the gift. But my brother was the gifted songwriter. I came up with the ideas. If I could give him a title and a few words of the story, he could write it in five minutes. So this is the way we worked.

I dont specifically remember the day that that song was wrote. But I remembered that my brother was attempting with all of his might to live a Christian life, so at that time. And the statement was made, I like the Christian life. He thought that might make a song, so what youre about to play is what he got just from that title.

GROSS: Let's hear it. And this is from Charlie Louvin's new album called "The Longest Train."

(Soundbite of song, "I Like the Christian Life")

Mr. LOUVIN: (Singing) My buddies tell me that I should have waited. They say I'm missing a whole world of fun. But I am happy and I sing with pride. I like the Christian life. I won't lose a friend by heeding...

GROSS: That's the 1996 version of Charlie Louvin singing the Louvin Brothers' song "I Like the Christian Life."

We'll hear more of our 1996 interview with Charlie Louvin after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Let's get back to our 1996 interview with Charlie Louvin. In the '50s and '60s he performed with his brother Ira under the name the Louvin Brothers. They became known as one of the great country vocal harmony duos.

You and your brother broke up the Louvin Brothers and went your separate ways in 1963. And it was I think just about a year later that your brother and his wife were killed in head-on road collision. And I think it was the driver in the other car that was drinking and that was responsible for the crash. Is that right?

Mr. LOUVIN: Yes, that's true. It happened in Missouri, halfway mark between Kansas City and St. Louis. My brother was coming home from an engagement...

(Soundbite of clearing throat)

Mr. LOUVIN: ...that they had been on in Kansas City and the other two people was going from St. Louis to Kansas City to celebrate Father's Day. They just started celebrating it too early, that's all. They didnt wait till they got out of that car.

GROSS: How did it change your life when your brother was killed?

Mr. LOUVIN: Well, I had already become a solo artist, so to speak, Terry, and I had released or Capitol Record people had released "I Dont Love You Anymore," which went to the number one spot. And I believe the second song was "Think I Go Somewhere to Cry Myself to Sleep." And it was doing good at the time.

And my brother kind of felt that somebody had done him wrong, but I hadn't. I - that's the - music is the only thing I knew and so naturally, I would try to stay in the business, and because he had sworn to me that he was getting out of the business.

However, he was making attempts to get back in the business, had a couple of records released for Capitol Records. Neither one of them had done anything, but I'm sure that if he would've been given time hed have figured out what the public wanted and that's what he would've gave them.

GROSS: You still performing with the Opry?

Mr. LOUVIN: Yes, ma'am.

GROSS: How long has it been?

Mr. LOUVIN: I'm almost finished with my 42nd year.

GROSS: Wow.

Mr. LOUVIN: In February next, will be my 42nd anniversary and I start into my 43rd year with the Opry. And I'm really hoping that it'll work into something regular here soon.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Yeah, right.

Charlie Louvin, recorded in 1996. He last performed at the Opry in July, which is the month he turned 83. It was quite a month. He also underwent surgery for stage two pancreatic cancer. We wish him well.

We'll close with 1958 Louvin Brothers' recording of one of their best known songs, a song that Emmylou Harris covered, "If I Could Only Win Your Love."

You'll find links to all the interviews in our country music series on the website, nprmusic.org. I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of song, "If I Could Only Win Your Love")

LOUVIN BROTHERS: (Singing) If I could only win your love, I'd make the most of everything. I'd proudly wear your wedding ring. My heart would never stray when you're away.

If I could only win your love, I'd give my all to make it live. You'll never know how much I give. If I could only win your love.

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