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For the past few years country music legend Charlie Louvin, who turns 82 next month, has been on a bona fide recording kick thanks largely to Josh Rosenthal, the brains behind the excellent Tompkins Square label. Since 2007 the imprint has put out four records by Louvin--the man who, along with his brother Ira, brought close-harmony singing into country's mainstream. In support of these recordings, Louvin has been rolling through Chicago more often. He's back again on Friday, when he plays the Heartland Cafe in Rogers Park.
Two of those Tompkins Square albums have come out since Louvin's previous visit, and they're kind of a yin and yang pair that mirrors the approach of the Louvin Brothers. Steps to Heaven is a gospel record, but unlike the loads of gospel material the Louvins recorded in their day, it brings in elements of black gospel too. Louvin's voice ain't what it used to be--its range is diminished, it's frayed around the edges, and its old sweetness is long gone--but he delivers spirited renditions of staples like "There's a Higher Power" and "Precious Lord." You can hear the similarities between the melodies of "When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder" and the Louvins classic "Great Atomic Power," one of the greatest apocalypse songs of all time.
Louvin is backed by Nashville's McCrary Sisters--all daughters of the Fairfield Four's Sam McCrary--who also sang for honky-tonk rebel Buddy Miller on his 2004 album Universal United House of Prayer (New West). On this record they're much more active, adding thick harmonies and deeply soulful ad libs. Though Louvin's regular guitarist, Chris Scruggs, drops some tasty lines, the main accompaniment is the piano of Derrick Lee.
The yang to Steps to Heaven's ying arrived a few months later. Its title, Charlie Louvin Sings Murder Ballads and Disaster Songs, makes it plain what Louvin's doing here--the record draws some of its repertoire from the fantastic Tompkins Square box set People Take Warning! Murder Ballads & Disaster Songs, 1913-1938. The Louvin Brothers sang some beautiful tunes laced with wanton violence, and inside the CD are some gratuitous photos of Charlie fondling a pistol. He's in standard country mode here, and to my ears he fares better. There are songs about fatal train and car crashes, about loving someone so much you're driven to kill them, and about the brutality of coal mining. Louvin has such a powerful presence and is so intimately familiar with the material (and the subject matter--his brother Ira was killed in a car crash in 1965) that his weakened voice is nearly irrelevant. It's like that for legends.