Thursday, January 27, 2011

Charlie Louvin, a voice who moved country music generations, dies at 83

Country Music Hall of Famer Charlie Louvin, a star of the Grand Ole Opry for more than a half century, died early Wednesday morning at his home in Wartrace, Tenn. He was 83 and suffered from pancreatic cancer. From the late 1940s through the early ’60s, Mr. Louvin and his brother Ira, performing as The Louvin Brothers, revived country music’s emotional, full-throated harmony tradition. They notched 10 top-20 Billboard country hits with classics such as “When I Stop Dreaming,” “I Don’t Believe You’ve Met My Baby” and “My Baby’s Gone,” part of a body of work that would later inspire artists including Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss and Dolly Parton. After the brothers disbanded, Mr. Louvin forged a solo career that included 16 Billboard Top 40 country hits in the ’60s. And in the new century, he rose yet again, receiving two Grammy nominations, playing the Bonnaroo rock festival and collaborating with the rock-ready likes of Cake, Cheap Trick and Elvis Costello. Asked in 2008 about his longevity in the music business, Mr. Louvin offered advice for those who would follow in his footsteps: “You need to smile a lot, sing your butt off and shake every hand that’s stuck in front of you.”...Born Charles Ezra Loudermilk in 1927 in Section, Ala., Mr. Louvin spent most of his childhood in rural Henager, Ala., growing up in a home with no electricity. Charlie and older brother Ira, the only boys among seven children, impressed family and locals by harmonizing with each other. The brothers spent hours listening to the Delmore Brothers, the Blue Sky Boys and any airing of the Grand Ole Opry. “When I was 14, Ira moved to Chattanooga with his wife and conned my daddy to allow me to come there and enter an amateur contest,” Mr. Louvin said in 2010. “We won the big prize, which was a one-minute show at 4:30 a.m. over WDEF, a 1,000-watt station. My daddy was up milking the cow and feeding the stock at that time.” The early morning work led to a gig in Jasper, Tenn., where the brothers made $100 each on their first night. “At the time, Ira was making $30 a week at the Peerless Woolen Mill at Rossville, Ga.,” Mr. Louvin said. “We thought, ‘This is it, we’ve got the world by the tail.’ ” They didn’t, though, and Mr. Louvin was drafted into the Army in 1945. When he returned from service in 1946, the brothers began playing music together again as The Louvin Brothers (“People tended to have trouble with ‘Loudermilk,’ ” Mr. Louvin told Charles Wolfe, author of In Close Harmony: The Story of The Louvin Brothers). They worked steadily in Knoxville, Memphis and Birmingham and recorded in Nashville, all the while trying to make the Grand Ole Opry. After nine auditions, the brothers joined the Opry in January 1955 and began a run of chart success.
1956: Ira, Chet Atkins & Charlie
“I was the idea man,” Mr. Louvin said in 2010. “It was my pleasant duty to write down anything that sounded like a song. Many times, (Ira) would finish a song, come to my house and say, ‘Get your guitar, I’ve got this finished.’ When he kicked it off, I could tell where he was going with the melody. I would do the melody and he’d do the harmony.” That formula worked well for Louvin Brothers classics including “When I Stop Dreaming,” “Cash on the Barrelhead,” “If I Could Only Win Your Love” and “You’re Learning.” While the Louvins’ early 1950s songs most often explored gospel themes, many of their hits were yearning ballads on unrequited love. The records at times featured electric guitars and other “modern” instruments, but the brothers’ vocal interplay was the sonic centerpiece. The Louvins were masters of the smoothly blended, “close harmony” style of duo singing. Ira’s creamy high tenor merged with Charlie’s lower-pitched, blanket-warm voice and created what Harris often calls “the third voice”: one singular sound created from two...

Read more about Charlie Louvin, including his solo career and his influence on Country Music in the Nashville Tennessean. His obituary closes with the following:

In December 2010, Mr. Louvin made his final onstage appearances, taping Marty Stuart’s television show on Dec. 2 and working East Nashville’s FooBar on Dec. 3. He collapsed during the Stuart taping but righted himself and carried on.

His appearance on The Marty Stuart Show will air for the first time at 7 p.m. Saturday on the RFD-TV channel.

“He was like a bulldog that day, just pouring it into the microphone,” Stuart said. “The last song he did was ‘Back When We Were Young,’ a Tom T. Hall piece. At the end, it was like a hymn, with all of us holding our breath.”

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