TITLE Charlie Louvin (Tompkins Square)
RELEASE DATE February 20
ADVANCE BUZZ Roots country legend is joined by stellar guests for a promising comeback bid
When Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard , Dolly Parton and other veteran country greats lined up to pay tribute to archetypal close harmony duo Ira and Charlie Louvin, the resulting Livin', Lovin', Losin' - Songs Of The Louvin Brothers (Universal South) album turned out to be one of the finest country releases of 2003. To the shock and horror of Nashville insiders, it also scooped Grammy Awards for best country album and best country collaboration with vocals.
Just imagine how pissed Faith Hill must've been to lose out to a various- artists collection. No less surprised at the album's left-field success was surviving brother Charlie Louvin, who regrettably didn't have an album recorded and ready to capitalize on the new-found attention.
But the resurgence of interest in the Louvins' music didn't start with that tribute album. It had been growing steadily since Gram Parsons and singing partner Emmylou Harris began using the gospel according to the Louvins to convert wayward rockers into true country believers.
It took Tompkins Square label boss Josh Rosenthal to see the potential in putting the active 79-year-old Louvin back in the studio. Rather than try to slick up Louvin's roots country sound in hopes of swinging some commercial country radio play, the concept was to set up the Hall of Famer with producer Mark Nevers (who engineered Candi Staton's recent comeback album, His Hands) and a top-notch session band featuring Marty Stuart on mandolin to record an album of Louvin Brothers faves and old-time classics in a way that might appeal to an alt-country audience.
Louvin quickly realized the wisdom in Rosenthal's end-around strategy.
"I chose the Louvin Brothers songs that we cut," says Louvin from his rural Tennessee home. "But when Josh came over to my house with the contract to be signed, he told me that if I'd agree to record some songs by the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, the Delmore Brothers and the Monroe Brothers, he could get my record played on college radio. If it's played on those stations, I could get bookings at university campuses, and that's where Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs made some real good money back in the Beverly Hillbillies days.
"If I refused to do those songs and the record didn't sell, you know whose fault it would be - mine! So I did the best I could with the material I had. And none of the songs was unfamiliar to me anyway. I knew the Carter Family's music from the time I was six - they were an early influence on Ira and myself, just like the Monroe Brothers.
"In fact, the last song Ira and I recorded together in 1963 was What Would You Give In Exchange For Your Soul, by the Monroes."
Just to be sure No Depression readers would sit up and take notice of the self-titled Charlie Louvin album when it's released by Tomkins Square on February 20, a few highly recognizable guest vocalists were brought in for the sessions, namely Elvis Costello, Jeff Tweedy, Will Oldham, Bright Eyes' Alex McManus, Lambchop's Kurt Wagner and Paul Burch.
Perhaps even stranger than the celebrated cast is who's been left out. You'd imagine that a tireless champion of the Louvin Brothers' music like Emmylou Harris would be at the top of the list for a project like this. Maybe not.
"I suppose she would've been on the recording if she was invited. I wasn't privy to ask many people myself, just George Jones, Tom T. Hall and Bobby Bare, who I've known for most of my career. But as far as that Uncle Tupelo feller (Tweedy) and the others, I have to give credit to Mark and Josh. I thought all the singers did a great job. I've heard a few of Elvis Costello's recordings, and from what I can tell, it sounds to me like he's had some good days and some bad days. I'm happy to say, heh heh, we were able to catch him on a good day."
Louvin is looking forward to a few more good days himself. He'll be touring in support of the new album and showcasing at South By Southwest in March, where he may even meet some of the people who sang on his album and thank them personally.
Despite his well-earned rep for live harmony singing, the vocal parts were recorded separately and then mixed together to create the impression of duets.
"I guess that was Mark's decision," offers Louvin, "but I'm not entirely sure, because he didn't want me in the studio when the album was being mixed. I don't know why, because I've got artistic control of the recording written into my contract. He said he just needed to slip into the studio when there was time available, and that's how he got around it.
"I had done some really nice harmonies with a couple of singers, but Mark brought in other folks to sing on top so you can no longer hear my people. It changed the whole sound, which is probably why he didn't want me around. He knew I wouldn't stand for it.
"But Mark and I are still friends. If I get a chance to record another album, it's very possible that he'll be the head man on that one, too - just as long as I get to choose the tunes. If the songs are good enough, nobody can screw them up no matter what they do in production."