Charlie Louvin released a self-titled comeback album in 2007. It was his first one in 10 years. Alongside Charlie were guests Elvis Costello, George Jones, Jeff Tweedy, Tom T. Hall, Tift Merritt, Marty Stuart and others. He was in his 80th year. Then he recorded a live album at Shake It Records. He played a hundred dates or so. And now, here he is with his third album in two years. What energy! And he has another one in the can, ready for release before Christmas!
This one is a bit different. Not entirely, mind. There were gospel tunes on the other CDs. He’s always been careful to include songs about his saviour. But this time, they’re all gospel songs. “Love at Home” starts things off, and sets the tone. Written by John H. McNaughton in the 19th century, it’s straight out of the old hymn book. “There is beauty all around, When there’s love at home; There is joy in every sound, When there’s love at home…” Well, you get the drift. Apparently this is the second most popular hymn played at western weddings in Japan. Where do they get this information? “How Beautiful Heaven Must Be” follows. “How beautiful heaven must be, Sweet home of the happy and free; Fair heaven of rest for the weary, How beautiful heaven must be.” Mrs. A.S. Bridgewater’s hymn has been recorded by many country singers, Porter Wagoner and George Jones among them, but Charlie’s voice seems perfect for it. He doesn’t hit the heights he did in the old days, and the years are showing but he still displays strength and confidence in the sure knowledge that he’s a lot closer to seeing how beautiful heaven is than he used to be.
The great Thomas Dorsey wrote the next one, “Precious Lord Take My Hand.” Not Tommy Dorsey, but Thomas Dorsey who played blues until he turned his life over to his Lord and focussed on gospel music for the rest of his life. (You can listen to this one on the Tompkins Square website.)
The arrangements follow a fairly strict format: Louvin sings to piano accompaniment (by Derrick Lee) and is supported by a choir made up of Alfreda McCrary Lee, Regina McCrary and Ann McCrary. There’s nothing like family harmony! Chris Scruggs adds a touch of “dog house” bass and electric guitar but that’s it. The sound is open with lots of space. It sounds like it was recorded live, and it was. On two consecutive days in May, at the Beech House it was recorded, mixed and produced by Mark Nevers. That’s right Mark Nevers, producer of Lambchop, Bonny “Prince” Billy and others.
So there you have it. A couple of redos of old Louvin Brothers’ tunes (including “There’s a Higher Power”) and more old hymns. This album isn’t for everybody, for certain. I can’t help but recommend it though, because of Charlie Louvin’s status as a writer, performer, and an out-n-out legend in country music. Steps to Heaven belongs on the shelf next to Johnny Cash’s My Mother’s Hymn Book as testament of the faith and devotion of a lifetime.
(Tompkins Square, 2008)