Charlie Louvin’s Sings Murder Ballads and Disaster Songs

cover artI waited a long time for this album. Not as long as Charlie Louvin did, though. The liner notes tell us that he’s been “singing about murder and disaster all his life.” And that’s 81 years. With his brother Ira, Charlie sang from the age of 5, and the two of them sang songs like this all the way along. Murder ballads, disaster songs, and gospel songs (like those collected on last year’s Steps to Heaven) were their stock in trade.

While he was supported by piano and a gospel chorus on the earlier album, this one finds him surrounded by a lot of guitars. William Tyler and Ben Hall play guitars, Pete Cummings adds bass, and Chris Scruggs sweetens with pedal steel. Matt Allen plays pipe organ, fiddle is provided by Billy Contraras (and Andrew Bird on “Darling Corey”) and Ben Martin plays drums. But the sound is mainly guitars and Charlie’s aged but still strong voice.

It’s a very open sound, not unlike Johnny Cash’s American Recordings. Of course it’s become very easy to refer to those Rick Rubin productions because they were so successful in presenting an American legend in a new format. Louvin deserves as much attention as Cash, in my opinion. Look at the list of songs he and his brother gave us. Their contributions to bluegrass and country gospel are extraordinary. Even if all they did was write “Great Atomic Power” we owe them a debt … but it goes far beyond that.

It’s great to see these truly legendary artists finding an audience later in life. Ralph Stanley’s recent successes, Johnny Cash, Porter Wagoner, and now Charlie Louvin prove that there’s more life in them than in any number of much younger artists. Somehow having an 80-year-old man sing songs about life and death (“Darling Corey”), about the Titanic (“Down With the Old Canoe”), about “The Little Grave In Georgia” adds new resonance to the lyric. Combine Charlie’s clearly aged but true voice with the solid picking support from the younger band, and you have a real recipe for success. Listen to “Darling Corey” at Tompkins Square.

I was impressed by Charlie’s comeback album, which featured the standard superstar support from the likes of George Jones, Elvis Costello and Jeff Tweedy. Then he followed that with a live album recorded with his own band; it’s not as easy to find, but worth searching out. Then the gospel album and this one, both recorded at the same time, and released only months apart. I’m impressed by his work ethic. And energy! Charlie Louvin could sing the phone book and make it interesting I think, but here he Sings Murder Ballads and Disaster Songs and totally captivated this listener.

(Tompkins Square, 2008)

David Kidney

David Kidney was born in the Marine Hospital on Staten Island in the middle of the last century, when the millenium seemed a very long way off. His family soon moved to Canada, because the air was fresher. He has written songs and stories, played guitar, painted, sculpted, and coached soccer and baseball. He edits and publishes the Rylander, the Ry Cooder Quarterly, which has subscribers around the world. He says life in the Great White North is grand. He lives in Dundas in the province of Ontario, with his wife.

More Posts