In 2001, the Louvin Brothers were inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. But Charlie Louvin, the surviving half of the famous vocal duo (older brother Ira passed away in 1965), doesn't act like a museum piece. "I'll be 80 years old this July," he says, chuckling. "I've got people in my band that are 25, and I can run their butts into the ground."
Although his current, self-titled album features remakes of Louvin Brothers classics rather than hip contemporary material (à la Johnny Cash or Loretta Lynn), the logic behind it was shrewd and sound. The owner of his label told Louvin that if he revisited the songs that made him and Ira famous, accompanied by a coterie of special guests, he could score airplay on college stations. And radio spins would generate gigs beyond the nostalgia circuit.
"That interested me a lot," says Louvin. "Because I believe that in this business, you should always strive to bring your music to new people." Toward that end, he performed at SXSW last month, and is appearing at the Bonnaroo Festival in June, too.
A breathtaking list of performers—including Elvis Costello, Jeff Tweedy, George Jones, Will Oldham, and members of Bright Eyes, Lambchop, and Super-chunk—costar on Charlie Louvin. For many, it was a chance to return a favor; the Louvin Brothers have long been a country music gateway drug of choice among rockers, particularly in the California scene of the '70s. Gram Parsons recorded their favorites "The Christian Life" and "Cash on the Barrelhead," and Emmylou Harris's first charting single was a 1975 version of "If I Could Only Win Your Love."
"Our songs have been around for 60 years, and they're doing better right now than when Ira and I were doing them in person," says Louvin. But their appeal can be tricky to pinpoint. The height of the Louvins' success, from their 1955 breakthrough "When I Stop Dreaming" till their 1962 swan song "Must You Throw Dirt in My Face," coincided with a rapidly changing postwar society. Even as technological advances from stereophonic sound to oral contraceptives were made, Americans lived in fear of nuclear war and flying saucers. The brothers' high, keening harmonies mirrored the eerie, otherworldly tenor of the era.
Charlie attributes the enduring appeal of their catalog to a more basic element. "There is a lot of morality in our music," he says. "The devil didn't stand much of a chance in our songs." Having started as a gospel act, the Louvin Brothers sang stories that often weighed the fleeting rewards of this life against the eternal ones of the hereafter.
Not that their records were the sole province of the righteous. Their most-requested song, the Nick Cave–approved "Knoxville Girl," is a brutal murder ballad. "It is a gruesome song," Louvin concedes, before illuminating a single word in the second verse (the victim is described as having "roving" eyes) that hints at the motive for her killing.
Although Charlie is credited on their originals, Ira did the bulk of the composing. "I wish that I had the gift that my brother had with writing," he says. "I could give him a title—which I did, quite often—and he could write a song as quick as he could write a postcard to Mom."
"But the songs didn't do him any good," sighs Louvin, referring to the drinking problem that would end their joint career. Although the 1960 concept album Satan Is Real featured "The Drunkard's Doom" and the Carter Family classic "The Kneeling Drunkard's Plea," Ira's worsening alcoholism was a key factor in their 1963 split. "We all know right from wrong," adds Charlie. "But what you know and what you do are two completely different things."
By the time his older brother died in a car accident, Charlie had already scored his first solo hit, 1964's "I Don't Love You Anymore." "I didn't want to be a solo artist, by any means, but [singing] was all I knew how to do, so I had to give it my best shot."
And he intends to keep slugging away. "I'm blessed with good health, and I've been given a chance to do this," Louvin concludes. "If I don't try, it just means I'm lazy... and I am not lazy. So I'm going to go out there and give 'em hell.