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At 81, Charlie Louvin rides career resurgence

Louvin also recorded two albums in 2008, a gospel record called “Steps to Heaven” that’s nominated for a Grammy on Sunday, and a collection of folk songs about murder and disaster.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Charlie Louvin carries on like a man half his age.

The 81-year-old country music hall of famer played 100 shows last year and is on pace to top that this year. He hasn’t performed that much since 1964.

Louvin also recorded two albums in 2008, a gospel record called “Steps to Heaven” that’s nominated for a Grammy on Sunday, and a collection of folk songs about murder and disaster. He originally wanted to release the discs together and call them “Heaven” and “Hell.”

“I’m blessed with good health and I can still sing on key. So if I don’t get out there and do it, it means I’m lazy,” he explained over coffee recently. “Lord knows I’m not that.”

Still, there was a stretch when Louvin was lucky if anyone even got to hear his records.

This was long after he and his brother, Ira, had helped set the standard for harmony duos as the Louvin Brothers. They were Grand Ole Opry stars in the ‘50s who inspired Johnny Cash, the Byrds and many others with hits like “I Don’t Believe You’ve Met My Baby” and “Knoxville Girl.”

Charlie created the melodies and sang low tenor, while Ira wrote the lyrics and sang high tenor.

“My brother was a born writer, and it was my job to think of ideas,” Louvin said, his voice craggy from age and cigarettes. “I’d hear something on the street that sounded like a song title and I’d give it to Ira, and 10 minutes later he’d have a song. He could write a song as fast as you could write a postcard to your mother.”

But Ira also liked to hit the bottle, and it took a toll on the music. The brothers split up in 1963. Ira died in a car crash a couple years later.

Sometimes, even today, Charlie catches himself looking for Ira on stage.

“When it comes time for the harmony to come in, I move over off the mike a little to give the tenor a chance to get to the mike and no one is there to sing,” he said.

Life as a solo actCharlie continued to have hits as a solo act into the ‘70s. When things slowed down, he kept performing on the Grand Ole Opy and recorded sporadically for small independent labels, most of which didn’t have the wherewithal to get his records to stores.

A few years ago, he lost three finger tips on his left hand while trying to lift the awning of a motor home and he hasn’t played guitar since.

Besides his music, he’s owned a booking agency and a record shop. He has a habit of mentally tallying up the cost of whatever he’s talking about — a recording session, a tour, a performance. Currently, he runs a Louvin Brothers museum inside a restaurant/gift shop just off the interstate between Nashville and Chattanooga, about 50 miles north of where he grew up on Alabama’s Sand Mountain.

Louvin began rebuilding his career a few years ago with the help of Josh Rosenthal, owner of New York-based Tompkins Square Records. Unlike the other small labels he’s recorded for, Tompkins Square is distributed nationally.

In two years, he’s released four albums on Tompkins Square.

The gospel disc, “Steps to Heaven,” a collection of old hymns Louvin grew up hearing, came out in September and is nominated for best Southern, country or bluegrass gospel album.

His latest, “Charlie Louvin Sings Murder Ballads and Disaster Songs,” was released three months later and includes three songs he first recorded with his brother 53 years ago: “Katy Dear,” “My Brother’s Will” and “Mary of the Wild Moor.”

The album was inspired in part by a boxed set on the same label, “People Take Warning! Murder Ballads and Disaster Songs 1913-1938,” a package of country, blues and folk tunes from a time when songs helped spread news across rural America.

“I just saw the opportunity that we could make these records and bring him back to a place of prominence that he really deserves,” Rosenthal said. “He’s a very unique individual in that he has a lot of connections to a very early era in country music, and to a lot of figures from that time. It’s almost like when you talk to him you’re talking to a ghost.”