Album Review: Charlie Louvin – Murder Ballads & Disaster Songs

Juli Thanki | December 16th, 2008

Charlie Louvin - Sings Murder Ballads and Disaster SongsFor an octogenarian, Charlie Louvin is doing pretty damn good for himself. In September he released the gospel album Steps to Heaven, a gorgeous record that puts just about every other country gospel release to shame. Now, just three months later, he’s back with another record–this time on the opposite end of the feel good spectrum.

Enough with songs about sippy cups, redneck pride, or badonkadonks; this is what country music is supposed to be: calamity, death, and a whole lot of heartbreak. Inspired by the 2007 compilation People Take Warning: Murder Ballads & Disaster Songs 1913-1918, Louvin offers up his own take on tragedy and depression—and just in time for the holidays.

Murder Ballads & Disaster Songs is a satisfying mix of the well-known and the obscure, with some of the material recorded by the Louvin Brothers over forty years ago. Charlie doesn’t add anything new to “Wreck of the Old 97,” “Wreck on the Highway,” or “Dark as a Dungeon,” but they remain as compelling as ever thanks to Louvin’s impassioned delivery.

Despite the tragic subject matter, opening track “Darling Corey” is infectiously catchy. Louvin is borderline gleeful as he sings about murdering this moonshining gal, accompanied by eccentric indie violinist Andrew Bird: “The last time I seen darling Corey/She was sitting on the banks of the sea/Had a .44 round in her body/And a banjo on her knee.”

On a record full of sad songs, the saddest of them all is “My Brother’s Will,” the story of a hunting accident and a brother’s last request. Louvin’s voice trembles with emotion on this track, leaving us to wonder if he is thinking of older brother Ira. Another high point is the cover of folk song “Down with the Old Canoe,” originally written and performed in 1938 by country singer Dorsey Dixon. A narrative about the sinking of the Titanic, Louvin manages to pack the three-minute song with enough pathos to make James Cameron burn with envy.

Both of Louvin’s releases this year have been better than their 2007 predecessor Charlie Louvin, a collection of Louvin Brothers songs with a host of guest stars who had a tendency to overshadow. Producer Mark Nevers, who has worked with Bird, Bobby Bare, and others, has a deft touch on these songs and the rootsy arrangements. There isn’t a bad song to be found on Charlie Louvin Sings Murder Ballads and Disaster Songs; in fact, the only flaw may be that the record is that it’s too short. At twelve tracks, the album is of average length, but it’ll leave you clamoring for more.

Like Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn, and Porter Wagoner, Louvin is doing some of the best work of his career at an age where others have long since retired. And like those icons, Louvin’s voice has changed tremendously during his fifty-some years in the country music industry, his once high lonesome tenor now a whispered rasp. But it suits this material perfectly, and singing these ballads Louvin sounds like a wizened oldtimer imparting wisdom to a younger generation. Which, in many respects, he is. Let’s hope we listen.

4.5 Stars

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  1. Matt C.
    December 16, 2008 at 3:01 pm

    Perhaps Charlie’s “whispered rasp” is indeed appropriate for these songs, and now that I’ve seen several strong reviews I’ll probably give this album a listen. However, I would describe 2007’s Charlie Louvin as “unlistenable” due to the deterioration of Charlie’s voice, and thus I haven’t been interested in his subsequent releases.

  2. Juli
    December 16, 2008 at 3:07 pm

    Matt, I wasn’t a huge fan of the self-titled album either, again, thanks to too many guest stars that did nothing but take up space. This record is leaps and bounds ahead of Louvin’s 2007 effort; but if you’re not a fan of his current vocals, definitely try before you buy.

  3. Rick
    December 16, 2008 at 6:22 pm

    Based upon what I’ve heard on his Opry performances of late, I’d have no interest in any of Charlie’s output at this stage in his career. I don’t mind voices that have enough character to make up for slight delivery imperfections, but Charlie is way beyond that limit for me. I’d rather seek out an older album when the now aged artist was at their peak, but that’s just me….

  4. Rick
    December 16, 2008 at 10:07 pm

    The concept of this album reminds me of a strange release I purchased recently. The album was a fundraising tool to fight the Texas death penalty laws, but since I support the death penalty I bought a used one so as not to donate any money to “the cause”. The album is titled “The Executioner’s Last Songs Vol. 1″ and was apparently so successful two additional volumes were released. Volume 1 features some artist names I recognized and like so that was my choice. All of the songs are supposed to relate to death or dying and its a strange brew to be sure. Favorite tracks include Lonesome Bob Chaney singing “Pardon Me, I’ve Got Someone To Kill”, Rosie Flores singing “I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive”, and one of the Waco Brothers singing “Looking Through Gary Gilmore’s Eyes”. Wacky stuff, but worth a listen.

  5. Juli
    December 16, 2008 at 10:15 pm

    Rick, I bought the same record last year and it is indeed weird and wonderful. IMHO, the sequel records are pretty good as well, but the original is still my favorite. Love Janet Bean’s version of “The Snakes Crawl at Night;” it’s just so dadgum catchy.

  6. Matt C.
    December 17, 2008 at 12:48 am

    Ok, I’ve listened…

    The material on this album is clearly first-rate, and modern artists who haven’t fallen off the PC deep-end ought to keep this one on the shelf for when they need a last minute album cut. However, this is nowhere near a 4.5 star album because Louvin’s vocals are woefully inadequate. He has by far the worst voice of the living country legends, and I don’t think that it lends character to more than at most a couple of songs on the record. On most cuts, he simply sounds like a washed-up singer trying to wring far too much out of what little’s left of his voice.

  7. Jim Malec
    December 17, 2008 at 2:16 am

    Matt, you just described my feelings about Wagonmaster to a T.

  8. Matt C.
    December 17, 2008 at 3:10 am

    I’ll stipulate that Porter voice wasn’t in his best voice on Wagonmaster, but I challenge Jim, and especially the rest of the readers, who may not have heard both albums, to listen to Louvin’s latest and then go back and listen to Wagonmaster. There’s really no comparison.

  9. Paul W Dennis
    December 17, 2008 at 5:43 am

    I purchased this album recently and listened to it repeatedly on my drive from Chesapeake, VA to Winter Springs, FL yesterday.

    Yeah, Charlie’s voice isn’t in great shape, but this is one of the best albums issued this year and it has a depth to it that reveals itself more with each additional play

    I don’t think comparisons between Porter Wagoner and Charlie Louvin are meaningful. They treaded upon different territory and Porter ALWAYS had a better soloist voice than Charlie Louvin

    I saw Charlie live about a year ago. He’s quite a remarkable individual whose late recording renaissance is indeed welcome. I know nothing about Tompkins Square Records, but God Bless ‘em for getting Charlie Louvin to record again.

  10. Brady Vercher
    December 17, 2008 at 8:47 am

    I gotta agree with Matt’s assessments of Louvin and his recent records. And really, I don’t think there’s any comparison between Porter and Louvin. Porter still had a vitality and richness to his voice that lent it character and poignancy when called for on Wagonmaster.

    For anyone interested, though, Hux Records is reissuing Louvin’s Less and Less & I Don’t Love You Anymore on CD in January. I believe it’s his first solo album after the split with Ira.

  11. Kelly
    December 17, 2008 at 8:56 am

    I couldnt disagree more with Matt, Jim and Brady. His vocals are more than adequate for this specific project. Listen to “Darling Corey” and it should be obvious that there is still a great deal of vitality to Louvin’s voice. While not as robust and not as strong, I see more comparison to Ralph Stanley Sr.’s vocal for Louvin than with Waggoner.

    I do think Wagon Master is a better album overall, and I also suggest that we shouldnt feel as though we always have to compare and contrast all albums made by the elder statesman of the genre, simply due to their age.

  12. Jim Malec
    December 17, 2008 at 9:08 am

    I don’t think Louvin’s voice is horrible for this record–that’s not what I meant. I was just pointing out that when an artist starts to lose their lose, there is a high level of subjectivity that goes into our analysis. I thought Wagonmaster was a truly bad record, but a lot of people didn’t. I think that there will be a similar polarization related to this.

  13. Brady Vercher
    December 17, 2008 at 9:17 am

    I think “vitality” is going to lose it’s meaning if we start using it to describe Louvin’s voice. A couple of performances are good (“Darling Corey” and “The Little Grave In Georgia”), but he doesn’t bring anything new to some of the oft-covered standards and sounds pretty weak in the process.

    Wagonmaster wasn’t really a polarizing album. Other than those who don’t care for traditional country music, you’re the first person I’ve seen to describe it as a “truly bad” record, Jim.

  14. Jim Malec
    December 17, 2008 at 9:47 am

    Well, there’s a first for everything.

    C’mon–Wagonmaster is very polarizing. There are a lot of people–a lot–who would find that album almost unlistenable. Hey, maybe it’s not polarizing within the critical community, but I’m just not sure what relevance that record has in the real world.

  15. Kelly
    December 17, 2008 at 9:48 am

    Brady: I just think that vitality is more flexible than you do I suppose. I dont see why vitality should be judged on the same scale for every one. Factors such as age and health shouldnt be excluded. There can be different levels, it’s not like when someone says that a lady is “sorta pregnant”….

    I am with you on being a bit shocked by Jim’s claim that Wagonmaster was “truly bad”…

  16. Jim Malec
    December 17, 2008 at 9:51 am

    No one should be shocked by that, since I expressed such sentiment when it came out. I just think what that record means is a lot more important than what it is. Everything about it is cool, but it’s not music that I would ever want to listen to outside of a study on Wagoner’s career. Maybe I’m an outlier on this one, and I certainly respect everyone’s adoration for the project, but I just cannot get into that disc.

  17. Kelly
    December 17, 2008 at 10:12 am

    My bad, Jim, I wasnt aware of that opinion and shouldve double checked before saying that I was shocked, bad choice of words on my part Bro…

  18. Leeann Ward
    December 17, 2008 at 1:05 pm

    I’m kind of afraid to say it, but I agree with Jim on Wagonmaster. Then again, aside from his work with Dolly, Wagoner is one of those legends I just don’t get.

  19. Hollerin' Ben
    December 17, 2008 at 2:35 pm

    I’ll agree with Juli here and I’ll argue that Louvin’s vocals on this record are excellent and really suit the material.

    I don’t think he sounds washed up at all, the tone is raspy and his range is limited, but he’s canny enough as a singer to stay within his range here and, in his range, his phrasing is still expert, and can even lay down some really nice vibrato on the ends of phrases. The “whispered rasp” is it’s own effect, and in a way explores a place vocally that younger singers have to wait to get to (unless you are Bob Dylan, then you just fast forward right to it)

    but yeah, I really loved this record.

    Course I loved Wagonmaster too.

    and Burn Your Playhouse Down.

    so I guess that makes me a sucker for old guys who still have badass phrasing and still make great vocal decision, but whose tone has become a whispered hush.

  20. Kelly
    December 17, 2008 at 2:42 pm

    Leeann, ya know what? Since we are getting on this subject (dont freak, ok)…Dolly is a legend that I dont get. Never have and have always been more than a little annoyed by her voice….

  21. Hollerin' Ben
    December 17, 2008 at 2:52 pm

    “Dolly is a legend that I dont get. Never have and have always been more than a little annoyed by her voice….”

    If you don’t settle down, we’re going to have to ask you to leave. got it?

  22. Kelly
    December 17, 2008 at 2:57 pm

    Wait, there have been multiple people bash Porter in this thread and I cant bash Dolly? Ben, slow your roll dawg, I wasnt sayin’ that Brad Paisley or Aimee Mayo rules or anything…

  23. Hollerin' Ben
    December 17, 2008 at 3:09 pm

    Wait, there have been multiple people bash Porter in this thread and I cant bash Dolly?

    Dolly Parton is an angel from heaven who, despite cutting tons of terrible pop-country over the years, is not to be spoken ill of.

    just kidding, obviously, but the whole “more than a little annoyed at her voice” thing, yikes, that is definitely borderline heresy.

    and, to clarify, that’s the second comment in a row you’ve left me with gangsta-speak. Did I get drunkenly thuggish on a comment here somewhere and forget all about it, or have you decided that getting street is just the best way to deal with me in general?

  24. Kelly
    December 17, 2008 at 3:11 pm

    “to clarify, that’s the second comment in a row you’ve left me with gangsta-speak. Did I get drunkenly thuggish on a comment here somewhere and forget all about it, or have you decided that getting street is just the best way to deal with me in general?”

    Sorry playa, I dont “get Dolly” and if that is wrong, I dont wanna be right….

  25. Peter
    December 17, 2008 at 3:25 pm

    now wait Kelly, don’t bring Barbara Mandrell into this… LOL

  26. Leeann Ward
    December 17, 2008 at 3:25 pm

    “Sorry playa, I dont “get Dolly” and if that is wrong, I dont wanna be right….”

    Okay, while I don’t understand it, I can accept that you don’t get Dolly, but please don’t tell me that you get Barbra Mandrell.:)

  27. Kelly
    December 17, 2008 at 3:26 pm

    Peter – good point, however, I was thinking more along the lines of Arsenio Hall’s preacher character from Coming to America where he says, “If lovin’ the Lord is wrong, I dont wanna be right!”

  28. Kelly
    December 17, 2008 at 3:27 pm

    To clarify – I do not get any of the Mandrell’s either…

  29. Paul W Dennis
    December 17, 2008 at 10:46 pm

    For those who might be interested: the Australian label Raven has issued a two-fer of Louvin Brothers albums containing the albums COUNTRY LOVE BALLADS and IRA AND CHARLIE plus six bonus cuts. This album is definitely a FIVE star effort and covers some different material than has typically been available on the Louvin Brothers collections, including some takes on then-current hits such as “Making Believe” and “Send Me THe Pillow (That You Dream In)”

    Re: Dolly – as far as I am concerned the duets she did with Porter Wagoner were the best recordings she ever made, followed by her early RCA solo sides. After that, it’s been a long and often strange ride with some nice peaks and deep valleys

  30. m.c.
    December 19, 2008 at 2:17 pm

    I’m a big fan of Dolly’s, but when she was young and starting out, her voice was a source of contention for record execs, too, according to Fred Foster, who signed her to her first recording contract at Monument when she was 18.
    Every other label had passed on her, and Foster has said that when he told his friend Chet Atkins that he had signed her, Atkins told him that he hated her voice and compared it to the sound a cat makes when you step on its tail. Of course, Dolly ended up on RCA, thanks to Porter, but you’ll notice that Atkins never produced her, as he had most other RCA artists. You have to think Dolly probably ribbed him regularly about passing on her, too, once RCA was benefiting from her massive success.

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