Album Review: Charlie Louvin – Murder Ballads & Disaster Songs
For 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.
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