Not just anyone could put out an album a few months before turning 80 and attract the likes of George Jones, Elvis Costello, Tom T. Hall, Marty Stuart, Jeff Tweedy, Tift Merritt and Will Oldham (among others) to tag along. As the younger half of the legendary country duo the Louvin Brothers — one of the great harmony acts of the mid 20th century — Charlie Louvin sang and played on records that had a lasting influence on generations of performers in a variety of genres.
Josh Rosenthal of Tompkins Square Records approached Louvin last year about doing a record with Nashville producer Mark Nevers that connected the dots between Charlie’s peers and his protégés. Nevers was well-prepared for the task, having produced records not only for roots-minded indie-rock acts such as Lambchop and Bobby Bare Jr., but also for old-school country greats such as the senior Bobby Bare (who also guests on the new, self-titled Charlie Louvin CD).
I spoke by phone with Charlie in early February from his home in Manchester, Tennessee — where he’ll be playing at the Bonnaroo festival in June — about his new record and some old memories.
eMusic: How did this record come about?
Charlie Louvin: I was sitting right where I’m sitting now, in my living room…and the telephone rang and it was Josh in New York. And he said that he had come to my show in Albany, New York, a year and a half before that, and he enjoyed the show, and he went back home and checked me out. And he said, “I found where you haven’t had an international release” — meaning, I think, a record with distribution — “in 10 years.” And I said, well, you’ve done your homework. And he said, “How would you like to record on my label?” And I’m always interested in that. And so he flew to Nashville, and he got Mark Nevers, the guy that produced the CD; Mark brought him to my house here. And we sat around and chewed the fat, and I signed the contract here at the house.
eMusic: I interviewed you in 1996, when your last record came out, and we talked a little about how that record was initially intended to be an acoustic album but didn’t really end up quite turning out to be that way. Was this one more along the lines of what you might have expected?
CL: Yeah, I think so. I was responsible for getting David Russell; he did the fiddle part on it. And I had the lady that sings with me, Diane Berry, she played the flattop. Of course we had two other guitars working in some of the other rooms back there, but she played the flattop. And my bass player [Mitchell Brown] played his upright, so most of the bass playing is him. There was another bass player there, too. We did harmonies on some of them, and some of them he let those harmonies stand, and others, Mark mixed several people in with us, and you couldn’t tell that we were singing a trio; it sounded more like a front-porch get-together. And I think that’s what they were looking for.
I did add a banjo [on "Great Atomic Power" and "Worried Man Blues"]; that’s the first time — well, Ira and I cut a song once upon a time called “Ain’t Gonna Work Tomorrow,” and got Grandpa Jones to play banjo. And the song, for some reason, we put a 7-flat in it. And that teed Grandpa off. He said, “Who put that off-chord in that song? That’s not supposed to go there!” He had his capo on, you know, and we were playing it in D, and the so-called off-chord, or the 7-flat, was a C. Well, with his capo on, he couldn’t go down low enough to catch a C. And it kindly raised the hair on his neck a little bit. But he did his job, got through it OK.
eMusic: Did you give Mark Nevers a lot of latitude as to the arrangements and overall sound of the record?
CL: Well…I called Mark’s office [after the record was mixed] and I said, “Tell Mark that he’s gonna have to remix it; there’s a helluva feedback on ‘Great Atomic Power.’” And of course Mark instantly called Josh, and then Josh called me and said, “That’s what we wanted.” (Laughs) But I didn’t — I still don’t understand it. You know, if he wanted to have a siren that would signify the atomic bomb was coming in, he could’ve gone on the internet and got a true sound of that. But this just came off to me as a feedback. Somebody had the volume up too high on something. But, if that’s what they want, we won’t be able to duplicate that sound when we do the song.
eMusic: Jeff Tweedy, whose former band Uncle Tupelo recorded “Great Atomic Power” many years ago, sings it with you on the new record. You weren’t in the studio when Jeff Tweedy recorded his vocal, is that right?
CL: That’s true. I wish I could have been. If the guy that was producing it would have called me — well, I told everybody, I’m an hour and 10 minutes away from Nashville, but I don’t mind driving down if I’m needed. You just give me a buzz when you want me there. But he didn’t call me. So, I missed everybody with the exception of Elvis Costello, George Jones, Bobby Bare and Tom T. Hall…and there was one there, she sang on “Grave on the Green Hillside,” it was Joy Lynn White. She acted like she didn’t know the tune on the verse, but when it came to the release, she sung the devil out of it.
eMusic: Were you there when Marty Stuart recorded his mandolin parts?
CL: I was in the studio when he came in. I was the one that got him to come in and play the mandolin. He was on seven songs, and after he finished, I said, “What do I owe you, Marty?” And he said, “You’ve already paid me.” Speaking of the past music, you know. But he’s a jewel, Marty is. And someday I would like to get a half a dozen mandolins, and instead of having a fiddle section, have a mandolin section. I love the sound of the mandolin.
eMusic: How does Marty’s style compare to the way Ira played mandolin?
CL: Some of his stuff, his tremolo was very close. He asked me up-front, “How do you want me to play?” And I said, “I just want you to be Marty Stuart. Do whatever you hear. I’ll love it, whatever you do.”
eMusic: Will Oldham sings with you on “Knoxville Girl,” which was one of the Louvin Brothers’best-known songs, right?
CL: Ira and I never worked a show that we didn’t get more than one request for the “Knoxville Girl.” Even when we had a number-one record, “I Don’t Believe You’ve Met My Baby,” they would request the “Knoxville Girl” quicker than they would request that one….It’s probably a 300-year-old English folk song. But I love those kind of songs. You know, I’ve played a lot of prisons, and you’d just be surprised what the prisoners would request. They’re in there for murder or something, but they wanna hear “Folsom Prison” or “Knoxville Girl” — they wanna hear the songs that talks about what they’re in prison for. I always thought that I would, if I was in that position, I’d like to hear something with a little sunshine in it. But they would always request the sadistic songs.
eMusic: What is recording in the studio like now compared to when you were making records with the Louvin Brothers 50 years ago?
CL: When we started recording, it was cutting right onto a disc. And if you made a mistake, you’d better stop and cuss, or they’d let it go. Because several times we would not sing a word together, and we would say to the record man, ‘We need to do that again, because we missed this.” And the producer would look at the engineer and say, “Did that bother you?” And the engineer would always say, “Naw.” And he’d say, “OK, what’s the next song?” So you didn’t correct nothin’. Today, if the bass player misses one note, he can go back and put that one note in there. And, it’s got so critical now that they can go in and take a word where you say “John,” and put a “S”on it. Without you going back, they can find another word that had a “S” on the end of it, and put it on that word that you left it off of. So, it’s mind-boggling what they can do with the computers of today.
eMusic: There’s one song on the record, “Ira,” that was written relatively recently, is that correct?
CL: Me and a couple friends of mine wrote that about a year and a half ago. But it should’ve been written a long time ago. When Ira and I parted, I never thought of heaven and Ira in the same thought. And these boys came to my house and wanted to know why I hadn’t ever done anything like that, and I told ‘em. Ira and I, we didn’t part real good friends. I didn’t know then, and still don’t know today, how to handle a drunk. I don’t think there’s any specific way you can handle ‘em. But Ira loved to drink, and I never drank, so that caused a lot of problems.
eMusic: You’ve lived as long now since Ira’s death [in a 1965 car crash] as with him. Does it feel like it’s been that long, when you look back?
CL: Well you know, sometimes, when I think of it, it seems like it never did happen. And then I hear some Louvin Brothers music, and I can remember that session, and it takes me back. It don’t seem like that he’s been gone for 42 or 43 years. But then again, it still don’t seem real to me. It should not have happened that way. And, if we would’ve been given time, which it wasn’t supposed to be, but if we would’ve been, I think that we would’ve sang together again. But it wasn’t meant to be that way, so it didn’t turn out that way. I think he had, as an old saying goes, he had his ducks in a row, and had backed off of the drinking. So maybe we could’ve got to sing again. But we didn’t, so, I’ll just go with another old saying, you don’t cry over spilt milk. Unless that’s all you have! (Laughs)
We had a lot of good years. We started singing when we were just kids. Our first paid job was the Fourth of July, 1941. That day, we worked on, in those days, they called it a Flying Jenny. Today they call it a merry-go-round. But this was a hand-made deal that was powered by a mule, about 50 foot out to the side, and a rope that went around it. And when the mule walked, the Flying Jenny turned. And so we sang, oh, we’d do 30 minutes, 45 minutes, and then you’d get a 5-minute break. And you could rush over to the concession stand there and buy a Coke, and you had time to drink it and throw it up, before you got on that thing goin’around again.
But the thing that impressed us most was that we made three dollars each to work that whole day. And in that time period, my daddy, when he didn’t have something he had to do on the farm, he would work for other people for 50 cents a day. We’re talkin’about daylight till dark now. You know, 12 hours, sometimes maybe in the summertime it’d be 14 hours. He worked for 50 cents. So we made as much in one day as he could make in six days, working like a dog. And that truly impressed us.