Charlie Louvin: Remembering Country's Harmonizer The Louvin Brothers, Ira and Charlie, were considered one of the all-time great country-music duos. Fresh Air remembers Charlie, who died Wednesday, with highlights from a 1996 interview.
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Charlie Louvin: Remembering Country's Harmonizer

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Charlie Louvin: Remembering Country's Harmonizer

Charlie Louvin: Remembering Country's Harmonizer

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Elvis opened for them. The Everly Brothers were inspired by their harmonies. The Byrds recorded their song, I Like the Christian Life. Emmylou Harris recorded their song If I Could Only Win Your Love.

The Louvin Brothers were 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 continued to record. His final album was released last year after he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Charlie Louvin died yesterday at the age of 83.

We're going to listen back to an interview I recorded with him in 1996 after the release of an album in which he recorded solo versions of songs he used to perform with his brother, including this one.

(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.

Mr. LOUVIN: (Singing) 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 love someone else and you asked me if I could forget.

Mr. LOUVIN, BARRY AND HOLLY TASHIAN: (Singing) 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 I, 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: Your earlier recordings were gospel tunes. Many of them were originals. In fact, why don't 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 don't do better. He knew better. He was extremely well-versed on the Good Book, as far as knowing what was right or wrong, he just - he just wasn't able to conquer the devil, I guess. But we didn't 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.

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, and 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 you're half of a duet, one person in that duet don't 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 in, 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 poll, playing very few dates.

And - because promoters, the men who spend the money for the TV ads and the radio ads and the newspaper and rent the building and all this, they don't buy problems. With everything running as smooth as possible, they'll still have enough problems to drive them halfway batty. But if they know that any particular group is more out to cause them problems than they are to be straight that day then they just won't buy them. And that's what happened to the Louvin Brothers' career.

GROSS: We're listening back to a 1996 interview with country music singer Charlie Louvin. He died yesterday at the age of 83.

We'll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Let's get back to our 1996 interview with country music singer Charlie Louvin, who used to perform with his brother Ira as the Louvin Brothers. Charlie Louvin died yesterday at the age of 83. He had pancreatic cancer.

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 don't. Things went and come in the Louvin Brother 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 idea. 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 don't 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 you're about to play is what he got just from that title.

(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 friends by heeding God's call. For what is a friend who'd want you to fall? Others find pleasure in things I despise. I like the Christian life.

GROSS: What was your reaction when you heard "I Like the Christian Life" performed by The Byrds?

Mr. LOUVIN: Well, I liked it. It was different. It was lazier. Didn't have a fire in it that the Louvin Brothers had in their arrangement. But I enjoyed it. Gram Parsons also recorded "Cash on the Barrelhead." And the biggest favor that Gram Parsons ever did for the Louvin Brothers was when he introduced Emmylou Harris to the Louvin Brothers sound.

And he played the song for her. I don't know exactly which song it was but her remark was, who is that girl singing the high part? And Gram said that's not a girl, that's Ira Louvin. And so Emmylou did a big favor for the Louvin Brother music catalog. I guess it's about 500 songs in all and she recorded five or six of them, which I appreciate. I know Ira would have too.

GROSS: In fact, I think one of the songs she recorded was "If I Could Only Win Your Love."

Mr. LOUVIN: That was her kickoff song for her career and I guess she thought a Louvin Brothers song was a good luck charm for her so she recorded "Everytime You Leave," "When I Stop Dreaming" and a couple of the gospel songs.

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.


Mr. LOUVIN: In February next, will be my 42nd anniversary and I'll 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 died yesterday at the age of 83. He gave his final performance at the Grand Ole Opry last November.

I'm Terry Gross.

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