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Louvin It Up

The high, lonesome hardships of country's best duo are getting easier to hear

The Louvin Brothers were country music's best-ever brother team, and when they titled their greatest album Tragic Songs of Life, they weren't kidding around. Over the course of that record, a woman wanders "this wide world all over," leaving her abandoned lover to contemplate suicide; a man, rich beyond his dreams, sits alone in a mansion, longing for the wife and family he has never known; another man beats his girlfriend with a stick until the ground flows with her blood; and still another man "shivers when the cold wind blows" just thinking about the lover who is "on that train and gone." Ira and Charlie Louvin sang each of these songs in tenor harmonies so perfect that all the usual descriptions -- yearning, aching, high and lonesome -- are rendered insufficient. If you said these harmonies were the closest anyone has ever come to actually simulating the pain of human loss and desire right there in the recording studio, you would probably be right. But you still wouldn't be doing them justice.

Contemporary sensibilities struggle to understand such straightforward songs, especially ones sung so earnestly. To the generations born since the Louvins recorded -- the baby boomers who mistook Dylan's significance to mean that great art is obscure; the Gen Xers who slip into ironic detachment as easily as they breathe -- these songs sound quaint, silly, even corny. They are appreciated as kitsch, if at all, and dismissed as sentimental. The Louvins also would have called them sentimental, of course, but they wouldn't have meant "mawkish" or "excessively romantic." They would just have meant "full of deep feeling" or, more to the point, "true." The Louvins knew that such songs simply recount the very stories that get told over and over, every day, in people's real lives. Broken hearts, loneliness, senseless death and losses of innumerable variety will forever be among the things that evoke human emotions most passionately. Fittingly, the Louvins sang with an intense emotionalism that mirrored the way people actually experience such events. They called their album Tragic Songs of Life, but simply Songs of Life would have done just as well.

It's heartening then, if a bit surprising, that something of a Louvin Brothers renaissance appears to building. Early last year, Razor & Tie released When I Stop Dreaming, a fine, if too heavy on the secular music, one-disc history of the duo. And late last year, in addition to Tragic Songs of Life, Capitol Nashville reissued two more Louvin long-players: 1959's gospel classic Satan Is Real and 1960's A Tribute to the Delmore Brothers. Razor & Tie and Capitol plan to team up this fall to reissue another of the duo's albums, 1961's Country Christmas. Best of all, Charlie Louvin has just released The Longest Train, his first solo album in seven years. The time is right to reaffirm that the Louvin Brothers are not only country and western legends, they're among the finest artists of any genre to ever record, period.

The Louvins were born Ira and Charlie Loudermilk in 1924 and 1927, respectively, in the Sand Mountain region of northern Alabama, just as the tragedy of the Great Depression was gearing up and just as country music's great tradition of brother duets was reaching its commercial and artistic zenith. At church, Charlie and Ira sang and worshiped among tiny Pentecostal congregations filled with the laying on of hands and speaking in tongues. At home, they huddled around the family radio, soaking up their favorite duets: the sweet, close harmonies of Bill and Earl Bolick (better known as the Blue Sky Boys), the forlorn Appalachian harmonies of Charlie and Bill Monroe and, most of all, the smooth harmonies and boogie songs of Alton and Rabon Delmore (themselves Sand Mountain natives). Following in the tradition of their heroes, the Loudermilk boys taught themselves to pick and harmonize -- Ira on mandolin and high-as-heaven tenor, Charlie on guitar and a tenor more down to earth -- but it wasn't until one day in 1940, when they almost literally had their doors blown off on the highway by Roy Acuff's touring car, that they vowed to make music their life's work.

Success was a long time coming. The brothers moved around a lot, performing here and there and finding usually brief jobs on radio stations all over the South. They adopted Louvin as a stage name (for some reason they thought it'd be easier to pronounce than Loudermilk). They recorded a handful of sides for a few labels without much notice, and they even broke up once when Charlie joined the Army in 1945. Mainly they just kept singing those tragic songs in those close, gorgeous harmonies, getting better at it every year and slowly developing a reputation as great singers and gifted writers, especially when it came to gospel material. You can't eat a reputation, though, and they were all but busted when Capitol producer Ken Nelson championed their cause, encouraging the Grand Ole Opry to hire them and, eventually, Capitol to let them record.

Their first real popularity was with their version of old-time Southern gospel. Louvin compositions such as "Broadminded" ("That word 'broadminded' is spelled s-i-n") and the minor-hit title track of their 1952 debut album The Family Who Prays (with electric guitar courtesy of Chet Atkins) established the duo as successful sacred performers in the fervent Sand Mountain tradition. Their unique brand of reverent yet often judgmental gospel was all they recorded until they were able to persuade Nelson to let them cut one of their own secular songs, "When I Stop Dreaming," which became a top ten country hit in 1955. Other hits quickly followed, making the brothers one of the most loved acts of their day. The best of these secular country hits was probably "I Don't Believe You've Met My Baby," a song so painfully paranoid and anxious (the narrator is scared because he's dreamed his sweetheart has a new love) that it makes Roy Orbison sound like the Dalai Lama.

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