I first heard of the Louvin Brothers while scanning the writing credits of the Byrds’ Sweethearts of the Rodeo album, the 1968 album that shocked the counter culture to its knees by embracing what seemed at the time to be outdated, anachronistic music associated with crushingly unfashionable conservative values. Yet the mastermind behind that album, Gram Parsons could credibly claim greater kinship with Keith Richard and Jim Morrison than with Barry Goldwater or Billy Graham.
So what gave? You need to listen, more than once, open mouthed, to Gram singing said Louvin Brothers song “The Christian Life” without a trace of irony to understand how for him the personal, the traditional, the importance of ‘roots’ transcended any perceived politics.
Ira and Charlie Louvin (nee Loudermilk) were born in the 1920s in poverty in the Appalachian Mountains in the Baptist tradition. Although they started out playing and singing gospel they found fame writing straight non-religious country pop had a string of top ten US hits in the 1950s, surviving the onslaught of rock n roll with ease.
This CD brings together two of their albums from the same era that were comprised entirely of religious songs. The style is predominantly country bluegrass as you might expect with vocals that hark back to their gospel origins. The vocals here aren’t particularly soulful but they are heartfelt and those close harmonies that, when delivered by brothers, as with the Everlys and the Wilsons, seem to have that extra bit of magic.
You certainly can’t ignore the lyrics and I guess you’re either going to be put off by them or not. Songs titles like “Nearer My God To Thee”. “Lord I’m Coming Home” and the surprisingly upbeat “Satan Lied To Me” give you all the clues you need. They certainly battled with their own personal Satans. Ira was a noted violent alcoholic, known to smash his mandolin during performances in genuine anger.
However the songs essentially deal with the same range of topics on the human condition that most modern music has done since, only that it’s done through the prism that they know, the one of their religion. What really comes across is that these songs are intensely personal. There is no tubthumping aggressive religious morality here, just humble, modest expressions of personal joy and pain.
The Church of Louvin: The Louvin Brothers Sacred Songs is available on the Righteous record label and is distributed and marketed by Cherry Red.