The Louvin Brothers were among the most influential of country singing acts in the 1950s and ’60s — particularly on their peers and succeeding generations of musicians. Charlie and Ira’s pioneering work in the close harmony style of country and gospel, influenced by Bill Monroe and other earlier greats, was a template for the Everly Brothers’ rock ‘n’ roll, among others. And the brothers’ songs and those of Charlie from his later solo career were favorites among the pioneers of country rock, including The Byrds and Emmylou Harris.
Now nearing his 80th birthday in July 2007, Charlie is still performing occasionally, and has put out this disc as a career overview, with assistance from a stable of Nashville regulars in the band and a gaggle of singing partners from among his peers and later generations of admirers.
Among the old salts lending a hand (and sounding like they’re having a grand time of it) the first and most prominent is George Jones, who with his long-time reputation for hard partying would seem the antithesis of Louvin’s clean-cut Christian image. But they sound like bosom buddies on the opening track, “Must You Throw Dirt in My Face” and on Jimmie Rodgers’ chestnut “Waiting For a Train.” Bobby Bare Sr. also sings on two tracks, the Carter Family’s “Worried Man Blues” and with another old-timer, Tom T. Hall, on the Delmore Brothers’ great “Blues Stay Away From Me.”
Elvis Costello is the biggest name from among the younger singers contributing. His choice of “When I Stop Dreaming,” one of the Louvin Brothers’ better-known songs, is a natural.
Chief among the gen-Xers who found musical kinship in the Louvins’ words and music were Uncle Tupelo, who put “Great Atomic Power” on their debut disc (named for an A.P. Carter song) No Depression. So it’s a treat to hear Jeff Tweedy, now fronting Wilco, singing high harmony behind Charlie on that very song.
“The Christian Life” was prominent among the tracks on The Byrds’ iconoclastic Sweetheart of the Rodeo album. Israeli-born Eef Barzelay, frontman for the alt-country band Clem Snide, duets with Charlie on the song here.
Arguably the best-known of the Louvins’ songs is the murder ballad “Knoxville Girl.” It’s certainly been covered the most, at least in the last 10 years. Will Oldham, of Palace and Bonnie “Prince” Billy fame, was an excellent choice for a duet partner on this song.
There are more highlights on this album full of classic American songs. Joy Lynn White of The Whites and Tift Merritt join a big group singing along on another A.P. Carter song, “Grave on the Green Hillside.” And Omaha’s Alex McManus helps out on the Carter Sisters’ tear-jerker “The Kneeling Drunkard’s Plea.” New Zealand rocker David Kilgour plays the only electric guitar on the album on the closer, Charlie Monroe’s “My Long Journey Home,” on which Paul Burch lends vocals.
Marty Stuart, who pops up everywhere these days, adds his stellar mandolin to several tracks. One that stands out is a solo ride waaay off in the distance in the eponymous tribute to Ira, who of course played mandolin with Charlie in the old days.
Charlie’s voice as it nears its ninth decade of course isn’t the powerful instrument it once was. The arrangements and production on the album are muted so as not to overpower his voice, which nonetheless has lost none of its command of phrasing and lyric delivery. That’s why it’s a special treat to hear him singing alongside a great like George Jones, another one known for his powerful delivery — these two guys still have what it takes to make you feel the song, and that’s really what it’s all about.
(Tompkins Square, 2007)