The Louvin Brothers - Biography

The Louvin Brothers may be seen as the culminating figures in a line of country music brother duo acts stretching back to the 1930s. The close harmony singing of the Alabama siblings — mandolinist Ira, the elder brother and one of the great tenor voices in country, and guitarist Charlie — made them a popular attraction on Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry during the 1950s. Though they were active as rock ‘n’ roll began encroaching on country’s turf, and occasionally attempted some wince-inducing forays into rocking territory (see “Dog Sled” and “The Stagger”), they remained a highly traditional act through much of their career, performing old-timey-styled material — much of it religious -- and frequently eschewing drums. 


The Louvins released a dozen country hits before the twosome split in 1964; conflict between the hard-drinking, temperamental Ira and the quiet, businesslike Charlie finally sundered the act. Their music was reintroduced to the country mainstream and to rock audiences in the late ‘60s and ‘70s, thanks to the efforts of Gram Parsons and his vocal partner Emmylou Harris. The brothers were finally inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2001; the new millennium saw a fresh burst of interest in their music and a renewal of Charlie Louvin’s long career.


They hailed from the small town of Section, located in the Sand Mountain plateau in northern Alabama. Their father Colonel Loudermilk (his name, not a rank) settled there after World War I with his wife Georgiane, a Baptist preacher’s daughter. Ira Lonnie Loudermilk was born on April 21, 1924; young brother Charles Elzer Loudermilk arrived on July 7, 1927. They grew up in nearby Henagar with six sisters in a sharecropping family. The family was a musical one: Colonel Loudermilk could pick the banjo, while Georgiane introduced the boys to old-time songs like “The Knoxville Girl,” “Mary of the Wild Moor,” “I’ll Be All Smiles Tonight,” and “What is Home Without Love,” all of which would reappear on the Louvins’ classic 1956 album Tragic Songs of Life.


The Loudermilk boys were reared on the shape note, or “Sacred Harp,” singing — a primitive form of song annotation (in which harmony is based on the shape of notes and not their placement in a staff) prevalent in the downhome Baptist church. Charlie Louvin told biographer Charles Wolfe, “If anyone really wants to hear where Louvin Brothers harmony comes from, all they have to do is listen to a session of Sacred Harp singing.”


Colonel Loudermilk was an enthusiastic listener, and his sons grew up with all the best current hillbilly records in their home. Unsurprisingly, they were inspired by great male duos of the day: The Monroe Brothers, Bill and Charlie, one of the era’s most influential brother acts (and the launching pad for Bill Monroe’s later bluegrass career); The Blue Sky Boys, Bill and Earl Bolick, whose repertoire of traditional sentimental songs and ballads would have a marked impact on the Louvins; and The Delmore Brothers, Alton and Rabon, a popular hillbilly act of the ‘30s who went on to forge their hopped-up brand of “hillbilly boogie” on King Records in the ‘40s.


The Loudermilk boys set their eyes on a musical career early. Ira began picking on a crudely homemade mandolin at the age of 8; he soon took up the guitar, but turned the instrument over to his younger brother after he bought a used Gibson mandolin. Charlie recalled that they gave their first paid performance on July 4, 1940, at an Independence Day show in Flat Rock, Alabama. They were paid $3 apiece.


It took several years for the brothers to attain any significant success. From time to time, they would support themselves with mill or post office work. In the early ‘40s they worked in live radio in Chattanooga as The Radio Twins and as members of The Foggy Mountain Boys. After Charlie was drafted late in World War II, Ira joined his boyhood idol Charlie Monroe’s group as mandolinist and (since the act already had a tenor vocalist) bass singer, and made his first recordings in 1947. Later that year, the brothers regrouped and began performing on the air in Knoxville, Tennessee. There, they encountered musician and disc jockey Smilin’ Eddie Hill, who recruited them for a radio program in Memphis. It was at this point that they took the name “Louvin,” since their given name proved too long and hard to spell.


The Louvins performed three live shows a day on Memphis’ WMPS. They established themselves as a highly popular gospel act — one that made an impression on the young Elvis Presley. They began to write their own material, and Hill’s friend Fred Rose, who operated Nashville’s most important music publishing company Acuff-Rose, signed them to an exclusive writing contract. In the late ‘40s, they landed a couple of unproductive recording sessions. One, as part of Hill’s band for Apollo Records in 1947, found them debuting Ira Louvin’s composition “Alabama,” which became one of their best-known numbers in its later rendition on Capitol. The second, secured by Rose at Decca in 1949, spawned just two sides — one a remake of “Alabama.” 


Rose also had a great deal of pull at MGM Records, where his charge Hank Williams was racking up plentiful hits in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s. The Louvins recorded three sessions comprising a dozen originals at MGM in 1951-52. The material was mainly gospel, and included such well-known Louvins compositions as “The Great Atomic Power” and “Weapon of Prayer.”


None of these records was a major hit, and Ira and Charlie grew so frustrated with their progress that they briefly broke up their act in 1951. However, in 1952, Fred Rose made a fateful phone call to Ken Nelson, head of the country music division at Los Angeles-based Capitol Records. The label, co-founded by songwriters Johnny Mercer and Buddy De Sylva and record retailer Glen Wallichs, had experienced great success with such West Coast country acts as Tennessee Ernie Ford, Merle Travis, and Tex Williams; The Louvin Brothers became one of their few recording acts bred and based in the South.


For the first three years of their tenure at Capitol — interrupted when Charlie was drafted, for a second time, to serve in Korea — the Louvins recorded gospel material exclusively. Their singles sold steadily, but were not major hits. They scuffled through Southern show dates and radio gigs. However, in 1955, things began to look up. In January, the Louvins became members of Nashville’s prestigious radio show, the Grand Ole Opry. And, in May, they recorded their first all-secular Capitol session.


That studio date produced “When I Stop Dreaming,” an intensely sung love song co-authored by Ira and Charlie. The songs roared into the country music charts and peaked at No. 8. It was succeeded four months later by a bouncy heartbreak song, “I Don’t Believe You’ve Met My Baby,” which climbed all the way to No. 1. Over the next year, the brothers would cut a number of crisply-produced singles that featured stirring singing and the bright interplay of Ira Louvin’s mandolin and Paul Yandell’s lead guitar. Their top 10 hits of the period included “Hoping That You’re Hoping,” “You’re Running Wild,” and “Cash on the Barrelhead.”


In May 1956, the Louvins entered the studio in Nashville to record their first full-length LP. The result became one of the most celebrated country albums of all time, and probably the finest and most cohesive of their 18 long-playing discs, Tragic Songs of Life (1956). Comprising mainly traditional material, and including numbers first essayed by The Carter Family and The Blue Sky Boys, the collection was a dark and almost perfectly formed concept work that featured some of the brothers’ tautest vocal work. It clearly made a potent impression on another sibling harmony act: The Everly Brothers’ 1959 collection Songs Our Daddy Taught Us was drawn from an identical thematic blueprint.


Some other noteworthy albums succeeded Tragic SongsIra and Charlie (1958), a collection of popular country numbers done up Louvins-style, and Country Love Ballads (1959), which contained their wonderful original tune “If I Could Only Win Your Love,” which became a major hit when Emmylou Harris revived it in 1975. They recorded their best-known gospel album, Satan is Real (1960), in August 1958; packaged in an outr√© jacket designed by the brothers themselves, it contained Ira’s famous title recitation and “The Christian Life,” a song covered in a slightly ironic version by The Byrds on their 1968 country-rock breakthrough Sweetheart of the Rodeo.


After the Louvins’ peak years of 1955-57, the hits became fewer and farther between, although they could still occasionally muster a top 10 cut like “My Baby’s Gone.” In 1960, they released a magnificent homage to their great formative influences, A Tribute to The Delmore Brothers. But many of their later recordings lack a certain spark and energy; some of this is no doubt tied to Ken Nelson’s decision in 1958 to banish Ira Louvin’s outstanding mandolin work from the team’s recordings, which soon favored the sweetening heard in Chet Atkins’ “Nashville Sound” productions. The instrument was heard only sparingly on later Louvin Brothers sides, and then usually on religious material.


There were signs of strain in the brothers’ partnership as the ‘60s dawned. Ira Louvin was a temperamental, womanizing alcoholic who was known to smash a troublesome mandolin on stage; his younger brother was soft-spoken and diffident. The tumult in Ira Louvin’s life made headlines in 1961 when his third wife Faye shot him five times with a .22 pistol. He survived, but three of the slugs couldn’t be removed safely and remained in him until the day he died.


The hits trickled to a halt for the Louvins in 1962. They were still capable of recording ambitious albums like the war-themed Weapon of Prayer (1961). But one of their better concept LPs, a tribute to Opry star Roy Acuff that was to be tied to his 1962 election to the Country Music Hall of Fame, was shelved by Ken Nelson in a fit of pique and went unreleased until 1967, when it was finally issued as The Louvin Brothers Sing the Great Roy Acuff Songs.


Finally, an August 1963 argument following an Illinois tour date marked the beginning of the end of The Louvin Brothers. Since a recording session had already been scheduled for a new gospel album, the duo regrouped in Nashville the following month; after recording their final number — ironically, a version of The Monroe Brothers’ “What Would You Take in Exchange For My Soul?” — Ira and Charlie Louvin went their separate professional ways.


Ira took a new bride, the Canadian vocalist Anne Young; he took up work as a luthier and recorded a solo album, The Unforgettable Ira Louvin (1965). Ira and Anne performed some shows as a duo during the summer of 1965. They were returning to Alabama from a pair of dates in Missouri on June 20 when their car was involved in a head-on collision on a highway near Williamsburg. Six people were killed in the crash; Ira, only 41, died at the scene, while his wife expired in a Columbia hospital.


Charlie Louvin’s solo career has stretched on for more than four decades after his brother’s death. He recorded prolifically for Capitol into the early ‘70s and logged 25 chart singles for the label, including half a dozen with duet partner Melba Montgomery. He continued to record for smaller labels over the years, and appeared regularly on the Grand Ole Opry. In 2007, he reignited his career with a self-titled album for the independent New York label Tompkins Square Records that featured such duet partners as George Jones, Elvis Costello, and Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy; he released a collection of gospel songs and an album of murder ballads and disaster songs for the company the following year.


County musicians and country fans continue to honor The Louvin Brothers not merely for the brilliance of their high lonesome singing, but also for the depth of their memorable song catalog. Beginning with the revival of their material by the country rock pioneers of the late ‘60s, the Louvins’ songs have proven to be durable, much-performed standards. In 2003, Universal South released Livin’, Lovin’, Losin’: Songs of The Louvin Brothers, a collection of duets featuring such stars as Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss, Merle Haggard, Dolly Parton, Glen Campbell, and Vince Gill. It was honored with a Grammy Award in 2004 as best country album.

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