By Wade Tatangelo
Think of Ybor City's music clubs and acts who play there, and the term "American icon" doesn't readily come to mind. But set down your import beers, kids. Real deal Charlie Louvin will be making an appearance at the New World Brewery on Friday night.
For those of you a little rusty on your Americana history, here's some essential background to prep you for the night.
The Louvin Brothers incorporated elements of hillbilly, bluegrass, gospel, folk and pop to create some of the most enduring country recordings of the 1950s. Ira's heavenly high tenor and Charlie's steady, slightly lower vocals united to forge a gorgeous, distinctive sound that would prove extremely influential, especially with alt-country pioneer Gram Parsons.
Charlie and Ira split in 1963 to pursue solo careers, and the heavy-drinking Ira died in a 1965 car crash that also killed his fourth wife. Charlie turns 82 in July but remains active with his self-titled 2007 album featuring guest spots by the likes of Elvis Costello and Wilco's Jeff Tweedy.
We caught up with Charlie on a recent morning at his home in Manchester, Tenn.
What drew you to the bleak subject matter of your new album Sings Murder Ballads and Disaster Songs?
It seems the whole world has gone crazy. There's always something bad today but tomorrow it might be worse.
What songs are you performing in concert these days?
I do lot of my own songs and quite a few Louvin Brothers love songs and gospel songs. But when I'm working a bar I hardly ever do gospel because I was raised to believe that's improper. But if you go to the bars — do you go to bars?
Well . . .
You'll always notice at last call, they'll be people in the corner singing a gospel song to themselves. Working on their conscience, for being in the wrong place.
Your late brother, Ira, had quite the reputation as a heavy drinker and troublemaker.
Well, I wouldn't say that. He was a troublemaker to me. We kept it in the family.
Did Ira really smash all those mandolins on stage?
Oh, absolutely. He stomped some of the most expensive mandolins in the world, simply because it got out of tune. The audience thought that was great — part of the show. But then he'd get a broom, sweep up, and put it back together and there wouldn't be a scratch on it. He was good with stuff like that. He was what people call a "perfectionist." Maybe that's why he didn't fare too well. He strived to be perfect. The fact he couldn't . . . Only one man was perfect and look how it turned out for him.
So many artists have covered your songs over the years. Do you have a favorite?
Well, Emmylou Harris started her career with her first decent record If I Could Only Win Your Love. The boy who introduced our music to her was Gram Parsons. He was trying to teach Emmylou to sing harmony and showed her a Louvin Brothers song. After hearing it, she asked, "Who is that girl singing the high parts?" Emmylou turned into an exciting, entirely viable artist because of him messing with her, showing her to do these things. That's nice.
You've toured with everyone from Cheap Trick to Lucinda Williams and recently with the Old 97's. How did that go?
The tall boy, the singer (Rhett Miller), was ungodly nice. He'd come on and introduce us every night. "We should be opening for them," he'd tell the crowd; gave us a marvelous introduction. Everyone I've met, rock or otherwise, has been extremely nice to me.
What keeps you touring?
I love people, y'know? I know entertainers who do their show and go hide. I don't do that. So I'll keep working as long as the good Lord gives me breath. But if I get to where they have to use that Pro Tools (digital help) on me, I'll quit!
Wade Tatangelo is a Tampa freelance writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.