Charlie Louvin: The Exclusive Pre-Grammy Interview
When I called Charlie Louvin’s home, to conduct the interview we had scheduled the day before, his wife answered. No, Charlie wasn’t there, she told me–he was at the gas station filling his tank before prices went back up because “they’re leaving in the mornin’.” Louvin may be a living legend and an influence to countless musicians, but the Depression-era values he cultivated as an Alabama farm boy haven’t faded away, and despite his integral role in country music history, he’s as easy to talk to as your own grandfather. As gracious as he is talented, Louvin spent nearly an hour on the phone for this exclusive pre-Grammy interview (his latest album, Sings Murder Ballads and Disaster Songs, is nominated for Best Southern, Country, Or Bluegrass Gospel Album) a day before embarking on a tour that will take him through the South from January until May.
JULI THANKI: Since we’re talking during lunchtime, I’m going start you off with a food question. I hear you’re a big fan of MoonPies.
CHARLIE LOUVIN: Well, I am. MoonPies were the thing growing up. MoonPies and RC Cola.
JT: Yes sir, I know the song. In your home state of Alabama, there is a yearly MoonPie eating contest. If you were to enter, how many MoonPies do you think you could eat?
CL: I wouldn’t enter an eating contest. When I was a kid growing up, I could eat two or three. But they weren’t triples like they are today. If I eat one today, that’s enough. But I still love ‘em. I’m not even aware of the MoonPie eating contest in Alabama. I know they have a MoonPie festival in Bell Buckle, Tennessee each year. They have an eating contest there, but I never get in there. I don’t pig out; I’m still at the weight I was when I was 25 years old.
JT: You’ve released two critically acclaimed albums in 2008, and in 2006 you released your first album in a decade. What inspired this revival?
CL: Well, I had done several indie label albums in that ten years. When I was on the road, people would say “I wish you’d record again.” So I’d go home, wipe the savings account out and record the CD. Of course, I’m too poor to send a copy to 3500 disc jockeys, and most radio stations won’t play an indie label period, no matter who sings it. So you see those same people a year later and they’d say “I thought you were going to put out a CD,” and I’d say, “I did, about nine months ago.” “Well, I never heard about it.” It just got very disheartening, that you would spend about $5000 to make the CD and send it to what radio stations you could afford to send it to, and that would cost you another $1500, so you’re spending too much money, considering you’re not even gonna get a play.
And then I was sitting right where I’m sitting now, and Josh Rosenthal called me. He said, “I saw your show in Albany and liked it. How would you like to record on my label?” He had distribution, and that interested me mightily. And I said “I’d love to.” So we recorded the first one and it was nominated for a Grammy, the first nomination I’d had since 1968 with Melba Montgomery. Again I was nominated in 1964 as a New Artist; this was the first year I was a solo artist. In 2007 I was nominated again, and it makes a difference when you can tell that to a promoter. Lo and behold, I was nominated again this year.
JT: Congratulations. It really is a great record.
CL: Thank you ma’am. It was my first endeavor with some of the older songs that I grew up with.
JT: On these recent albums you’ve been working with some great young talent like Andrew Bird, Tift Merritt, and Paul Burch. Had you heard their music before, or was bringing them into the mix [producer] Mike Nevers’ idea?
CL: I had heard the little girl, Tift. She can sing like a bird; and she’s a cutie too, a tiny little girl. I had the pleasure of singing with her on the Opry. I wrote to her that she could do her show and then come back for my show and we’d do the song from the record ["Grave on the Green Hillside" from 2006's Charlie Louvin]. That was a pleasure. And I’ve become pretty good friends with Costello. I was in the studio when he recorded his part on “When I Stop Dreaming.” In the past four years I’ve toured with Cheap Trick, Cake, The Detroit Cobras, and later I toured with Old 97’s and Lucinda Williams. Our audiences are much younger people; I’m singing to the great-great grandchildren of the people my brother and I sang to.
JT: That must be a really great feeling, to know that your music is influencing so many generations.
CL: Well, we just try, and so far we’ve been lucky. I’m blessed with good health, so if I don’t get out there and work, it means I’m lazy. Of course, I’m not that.
JT: Forty years ago as a solo artist, and before that when you and Ira were recording, you were a constant presence on country radio. Now it’s hard for you to get a play on mainstream radio and television. Does this exclusion bother you?
CL: Certainly. They don’t grade what they play by the quality of its content. They play it because the person who’s singing it is young, and cute, and it don’t hurt a bit if you’re female. And it seems that the major labels own most of the radio stations. You couldn’t shoot your way on to a ClearChannel station. It’s not like it used to be; you couldn’t own the radio stations in my early years, and today one conglomerate can control 500 stations. That’s bad for the business. Radio is supposed to be a community project, and too many stations are getting their orders from somewhere else. And what New York City would like isn’t necessarily what Manchester, Tennessee would want to hear.
JT: Are you getting a different sort of audience from satellite radio?
CL: The Outlaw Channel on XM Radio plays my record pretty good, and they play the Louvin Brothers as well. Just recently I did an interview on Sirius. I believe in two or three more years, there will be a classic, or old-timey—I’ve had to change the name two dozen times—that music will be in the forefront a few years from now. I hope I’m still around to enjoy it.
JT: What do you think of the state of country music today?
CL: Juli, I don’t know if I’m educated enough to put that into words. The tragic thing that’s happened to country music is that guys will record things that in the 1950s we called “rock & roll,” and they call it country, and the powerful radio stations play it and call it country. It’s got the country music fan so confused that he doesn’t know what to buy. The advantage younger artists have today is getting played. If you get played and your record don’t sell, then you know you did something the public didn’t like, and you make a change. If they don’t ever hear it, and just a handful of people turn you down, then you don’t know if you have a good record that would have sold if people heard it. It’s very confusing.
JT: Are there any current artists that you listen to?
CL: I admire George Strait for being true to his music. For the most part, Alan Jackson sings country. Alison Krauss is an extremely great singer. Here’s Dolly Parton on a minor label. After all she’s done, here she is winding up her career on a minor label. It’s just mind-boggling, but a whole drove of people on the Opry don’t have a label, and that’s really heartbreaking. And I like Brad Paisley; he can get hot when he wants to, but he has recorded some good country stuff.
JT: In 2003, a Louvin Brothers tribute album was released and it featured several top-notch artists. That must have been a great honor, considering that 50 years ago you and Ira were doing your own tributes to artists like the Delmore Brothers and Roy Acuff. What are your thoughts on the project?
CL: I think that’s the best tribute album ever recorded by anybody. Carl Jackson did a superb job on that, picking the singers who were involved. They released the one song, “How’s the World Treating You” with Alison Krauss and James Taylor. If Universal would have released “Cash on the Barrelhead” with Joe Nichols and Rhonda Vincent it would have been a hit, but for some reason they only released the one single. Alison and James got a Grammy, Carl got a Grammy for the production, and there would have been more if someone had been interested enough to push it.
JT: On your album Charlie Louvin, I was really moved by the song “Ira.” The video is really beautiful as well. What was your reaction to seeing the finished video for the first time?
CL: We had a showing at the Country Music Hall of Fame, and there were so many biggies around that I couldn’t afford to get too sentimental. But it was a thriller. Me and my friends the LeClair twins wrote that song, and it’s pretty close to the truth. There’s no fiction in that song.
JT: Satan is Real is hands down the best album cover in music history. Can you tell me a little bit about the process of creating it?
CL: After the song was finished, it hadn’t been released yet. They wanted to put out an album, and we asked if we could make Satan is Real the album title. We got the okay on that. My and Betty’s oldest son had a Lionel train on a four by eight foot piece of plywood. At the time, money was scarce, so we removed the train from the plywood, cut it in two and made Satan sixteen feet tall. We pictured Satan as having a pitchfork and horns; that’s what we were told when we were kids, but I find that it’s not true: I’m pretty sure I saw Satan the other day in a bikini on the beach. So he comes in all different forms now, but when I came up he was just the mean man with the pitchfork, and if you wasn’t a good kid, he’d get you.
Close to where my wife and I lived at the time was a gravel pit and nobody would mind if we went in there, so we took some car tires and filled them full of kerosene. The Capitol Records photographer came in from California to shoot the picture. We dressed and got out there and the fire was going good, but about that time it started sprinkling rain. The photographer said “We’re going to have to do this later,” and we said “We can’t do it later; everything we’ve done will be destroyed in a few minutes. We can stand in the rain and it won’t hurt your camera.” So he went ahead and shot. The rain was coming down in big drops, and there’s a certain kind of rock that, if it gets real hot and you put something cold on it, it’ll blow up. We had rocks as big as your fist that would blow up and go way up in the air and you didn’t know where they were going to land. I don’t know if we were stupid or brave, but we really wanted to get that shot done. So we did it, then we put the fires out. The photographer took his work back to California, and the rest is history.
JT: That is really an amazing story. When you and Ira made the decision to sing secular music instead of solely gospel, did it feel as though you were selling out?
CL: We got into the business by singing silly songs like “There’s a Hole in the Bottom of the Sea” in a contest. The prize turned out to be a fifteen minute radio show on a 250 watt station in Chattanooga. So we had mixed our music even as a gospel duo. We didn’t play all gospel on the road, either. We played very few churches because we played string instruments. We couldn’t play a club as a gospel act—we always put in one or two of them—because it would slow the sale of liquor and make the owner of the bar very unhappy. He’d let you know right quick that was how he made his living, and not to do the “everybody here tonight’s going to hell” song you’re singing. So we needed to expand into secular music. It took a while to convince the label because two years before that, the greatest gospel singer that ever lived, Martha Carson’s husband wanted her to do the same thing. They were told “If you do this and people don’t like it, your gospel fans are going to drop you because you did it” and that’s exactly what happened. When we wanted to sing secular music, that was the argument that was always put up: “So you want to pull a Martha Carson.” We were lucky that the first song we did, “When I Stop Dreaming,” was a non-offensive song. You couldn’t really object to that.
JT: And it turned out to be one of your biggest hits; everyone’s covered it.
CL: It’s been recorded 200 times now. So we lucked out on that; we could have been a Martha Carson, never to record again, but it didn’t work out that way. Everyone deserves luck once in a while. But we never quit recording gospel. Each year we’d cut a gospel album and a secular album, sometimes two of each in one year.
JT: That’s pretty much what you’ve done this past year, releasing Steps to Heaven and Sings Murder Ballads and Disaster Songs.
CL: The Disaster Songs, I’d hate to admit it, but it’s a dead copy of the Louvin Brothers’ Tragic Songs of Life. We even used three of those songs, rerecording “Mary the Wild Moor,” “Katy Dear,” and “My Brother’s Will.”
JT: Out of everything you’ve accomplished in your sixty year career, what are you most proud of?
CL: That’s a loaded one; there’s been so many things that have happened. Meeting somebody at the Acuff-Rose publishing company; we had songs but didn’t know a publisher. That was a big thing. Signing with the Grand Ole Opry in 1955 was big; going into the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame after Ira was gone, that was a big thing. I’ve just had so many great things happen that it’s impossible to pick one over all the rest of them. I’m proud of all of them. I still love the business, but the travel isn’t enjoyable as it once was. Almost everywhere I play, Ira and I played fifty years ago, and it drudges up the old bad things that happened getting there, playing, and going someplace else. One year, Ira and I worked 335 one-nighters. That left thirty days, and I’m sure that half of them were travel days. That’s a lot of work; and I know I couldn’t handle it today. We were doing two-hour shows a night; six nights a week, that’s twelve hours of singing continually. No wonder my voice is almost worn out.
JT: Your voice has gotten what we might call “lived in” over the past 60 years; do you think it adds a different component to your songs?
CL: It makes them more sincere. They are in a lower key. When we were the Louvin Brothers, I sang higher than I wanted to. My brother always named the key, and if I said it was too high, he’d say “Stick with it. You’ll get it.” And I always did, but sometimes it didn’t feel good.
JT:Iis there anything you regret?
CL: We say “If I could go back to when I was ten years old,” but you’d go back and you’re just as dumb as you were when you were ten years old, you’d do the same things. But if I could go back with the knowledge that I’ve witnessed in these sixty years, then I’d like to go back. I could probably do several things better than I’ve done and not to have done some of them at all. But we all have 20-20 hindsight. I don’t know anybody that’s got perfect vision.
Webb Pierce—you know he had about 25 Number Ones in a row—and he used to say that he couldn’t pick a hit song. Somebody told him “Webb, if you could pick a hit song, you could sit at home and be a multimillionaire. You’d just pick songs for this artist and that artist and charge big money for it. You’d be filthy rich in a year.” That might have been Jack Daniels talking anyway.
JT: I guess that happens sometimes.
CL: Well, he was cursed with it.
JT: I’m sure you’ve seen a lot of that in your career, unfortunately.
CL: It was what broke the Louvin Brothers up. I didn’t know—and still don’t know today—how to handle a drunk. I don’t believe that anybody’s ever mastered the perfect way to handle a drunk. The surest way would be to put handcuffs on him and take him to jail, I guess. But that don’t help the drunk. He needs more help than that. I learned the lesson. You ought to listen to “The Price of the Bottle.” You listen to that, and that’s as true as a heartbeat.
JT: Moving on to a less sad subject, movies about musicians are pretty popular these days. If a movie about your career were made, who would you want to play your character?
CL: I don’t have anyone in mind. Several people could, and I like several actors. There’s been a movie written on the Louvin Brothers, I’m sure it was ten or twelve years ago, by a couple of guys in New York City. They’ve never been able to get the finances it would take to make a movie out of it. But they’ve got it written, the shots and everything, it’s all in the book. They just didn’t have anybody who wanted to invest six or seven million dollars.
JT: Is there a particular time period you’d want it to focus on?
CL: We were raised the hard way, in a farming village. My daddy only had forty acres, but when we had neighbors that needed help, he’d hire us out like we were slaves if we didn’t have nothin’ to do at the house. Money was hard to come by; I’m not knocking him, he did it a whole lot better than I could have done it. We was raised that way and the first big artist we ever seen in 1939—I was twelve years old and Ira was fifteen—and Roy Acuff came to a little school not that far from our house. We didn’t have the money to go, but we went anyway. And there was as many people standing in the yard as there were in the building. The building was full; we couldn’t have gotten in there even if we’d had a ticket. But looking at the way they dressed, how much fun they were having, and the transportation they came in, it fired us up and we knew that was what we wanted to do. It took a long time. Our first professional show was in 1941, and it took fourteen years to achieve our dream, which was to become members of the Opry.
JT: I remember reading that you let a young Johnny Cash into one of your concerts for free, and that this meeting inspired Cash to always eat soda crackers before performing. Do you have any other similar interesting encounters?
CL: That’s in his Man in Black book; he devoted two or three pages to that meeting. I remembered that meeting; even before he became a superstar, we talked about it. Elvis opened for the Louvin Brothers, Johnny Cash opened for the Louvin Brothers, and you never know what’s going to happen to an artist. Johnny had that charisma about him, and so did Presley. That’s just something you can’t smother, and if you got it, it’ll show.
I met a guy in Texas once and he looked like a squirrel. You know, he just bugged everybody. He wasn’t over sixteen years old, but he talked like he had forty years of experience under his belt already. Everybody just blew him off. Fortunately, I talked to him. Didn’t have nothin’ else to do, so I just talked to him. Ten years later, he chose which records would be played on forty radio stations in Texas. You could have looked at him and never believed what he would become. If you don’t know something and you think you’d like to, you’ll never know unless you ask somebody, or read it. You have to learn from somewhere, whether it’s in a book or verbally. You have to learn what you desire, and you learn it from people who have done it better than anywhere else.
JT: You’re 81 years old, you’ve served our country [Louvin is a veteran of the Korean War], you’re a grandfather, and you’re a living legend in country music. What’s next? Is there anything else you still want to accomplish?
CL: There is a project that, if the Lord’s willing and I hang around that long, I’m gonna do quality. I’m going to do a blues album. I’ve done gospel, bluegrass, and country. Steps to Heaven I recorded with three black sisters and a black pianist. In the studio, all that was there was the pianist and the four of us. I thought that was a milestone, especially for an Alabama farmboy.
Levon Helm’s got a state of the art studio in Woodstock, New York. When we did his Midnight Ramble, I mentioned something along that line and he said “Come up, we’ll cut the blues album and mix it to your tastes, and it won’t cost you a cent.” Now that’s not totally true: if I took me and the band up to Woodstock, New York, it’d be a minimum $200 a day in food and $200 a day for the motel. It wouldn’t be totally free, but his offer shocked me.
JT: That’s a good friend.
CL: It was the first time I ever met him. He won the Grammy in 2007, but I was right on his heels. You know he was plagued with cancer, and I’m sure that some of those votes were sympathy votes, but I was sincerely glad he won, because he might not be around to fight again. He’s just an Arkansas farm boy himself, and had great stuff with The Band. You familiar with his music?
JT: Yes sir, I am. But I have to admit that my first exposure to Levon was when he played Loretta Lynn’s daddy in Coal Miner’s Daughter.
CL: You know, I never did see that movie. My wife has a copy, but I’ve never seen it because there’s too much fiction in it. The Wilburn brothers, Teddy and Doyle, brought her to Nashville, published her songs, got her on Decca Records, they just did everything! But in her story, the Wilburn Brothers weren’t mentioned. And that did something to me, that the movie doesn’t acknowledge the Wilburn Brothers’ contributions that they made to her career. Of course, the Wilburn Brothers are dead and gone now—there were four brothers total—they’ve all gone now.
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