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Livin' Lovin' Losin': Songs of the Louvin Brothers

(Universal South)

Ralph Stanley & the Clinch Mountain Boys

at the Old Town School of Folk Music, October 5

Livin' Lovin' Losin': Songs of the Louvin Brothers is the worst sort of tribute album: a casual listener will likely come away from it wondering why all the fuss over some post-World War II country duo. But there's indeed good reason for a tribute, even if the 30 country pros assembled don't quite prove it. Without Charlie and Ira Louvin's close-harmony country songs, recorded in the 50s and early 60s, Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris lose a crucial influence. Without the Louvins, the Everly Brothers have nothing to go on, which means Simon & Garfunkel hardly exist. Without the Louvins' 1956 recording of "In the Pines," Kurt Cobain has no model for the tangle of heartbreak, accusation, and shame he conveys on Nirvana's Unplugged version of the song.

And without the Louvins, there's one fewer attempt on the life of Elvis Presley for debasing himself in the sight of God. During a 1956 tour, Presley and Ira Louvin were playing hymns backstage when Presley confessed that he felt forced to avoid singing spirituals in public. Ira--by all accounts a raging, mean-spirited alcoholic tormented by his failure to become a minister--grabbed Presley by the throat. If Ira's rhetoric was despicable ("Why, you white nigger, if that's your favorite music, why don't you do that out yonder? Why do you do that nigger trash out there?"), his reaction does convey his desperate, violent unwillingness to exclude God from his work: you at least try to have it both ways. The uneasy coexistence of the spiritual and the secular is what makes the Louvins worth listening to today; their best songs struggle with issues of faith in the wider world, and seem to view falling in love not so much a goal as evidence of a flaw.

The Louvins began performing in the 1940s primarily as a gospel-country act, and the liner notes to Livin' suggest that their transition to secular love songs in the 50s was a relatively easy one--as if they were in a hurry to break away from spirituals. Indeed, they lobbied their label, Capitol, to let them record a secular song, ultimately betting their contract on its chart performance. They won the bet. But if the Louvins' output after 1955 is any indication, they weren't so much abandoning their past as making a devil's bargain. Songs like "When I Stop Dreaming" and "Cash on the Barrelhead" got them mainstream attention and a spot on the Grand Ole Opry (where a cigarette sponsor told them, "You can't sell tobacco with gospel music"). But until their breakup in 1963, the Louvins persisted in recording spirituals, most infamously on 1960's Satan Is Real, which contains chastisements like "The Kneeling Drunkard's Plea" and "Are You Afraid to Die."

And even in a Louvin Brothers love song, God--or at least an overpowering sense of apprehension and sin--looms over the proceedings. "We were alone last night, pretending wrong was right," begins "I Wish It Had Been a Dream." "If only you meant what you promised, we wouldn't be crying today," goes the key line of "You're Learning." A Louvin Brothers love song is a song where somebody realizes he's made not just an emotional mistake but a moral one. Those lines may seem like boilerplate honky-tonk breakup lyrics, but not when you hear them sung by two God-fearing men who won fame making compromises they could never quite justify to themselves.

Livin', however, decides to keep things exceedingly simple: it recasts the Louvins as a pleasant close-harmony singing duo whose songs are simple and malleable enough to accommodate whatever a singer might want to do to them. And the best of the new versions are admirably performed: Rodney Crowell and Emmylou Harris's sorrowful "My Baby's Gone," the pensive waltz of "Must You Throw Dirt in My Face" as tackled by Merle Haggard and Carl Jackson (the record's producer), Patty Loveless and Jon Randall's sweetly paranoid "Are You Teasing Me." God finally shows up toward the tail end of the disc, on Dolly Parton and Sonya Isaacs's "The Angels Rejoiced," and the closer, "Keep Your Eyes on Jesus," featuring Pam Tillis and Johnny Cash, reciting from the Book of Matthew.

Much of the disc, however, has an overproduced adult-contemporary sheen that smooths off the song's rough edges, an inevitability when you recruit Glen Campbell, James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt, and the increasingly uninteresting Alison Krauss. Only Marty Stuart and Del McCoury's "Let Us Travel, Travel On," a gritty guitar-and-mandolin exploration of sin and hope, seems willing to go after the Louvins' devotional tone. For the most part Livin' comes off as a revisionist history project, designed by Ira's daughter Kathy and Jackson (who spent 12 years playing with Campbell) for a large mainstream imprint, Universal South. If it's true--as the liner notes argue--that the Louvins were eager to record secular songs in the 50s, a modern collection still ought to make more sense of the spiritual tracks they kept coming back to. Ignoring everything but the Louvins' pop hits might have made some sense by the commercial standards of the 50s and 60s, but in the 21st century, when mainstream country and No Depression ("in heaven," remember) have each reconfirmed God's country credibility, there's little excuse.

The choices on Livin' seem particularly misguided if you spend any amount of time with Louvins LPs like Tragic Songs of Life and Satan Is Real or Razor & Tie's magnificent 1995 compilation When I Stop Dreaming. It's those tragic songs that Livin' misses entirely: if a classic like "The Family Who Prays" is a bit too square and proselytizing, "Broadminded" (it's "spelled s-i-n," we're told) encapsulates the Louvins' fear for the world, and "The Christian Life" (which Gram Parsons brought to the Byrds) is a more elegant tale of backsliding than "The Angels Rejoiced" could hope to be. The soaring harmonies of "Pitfall" and "I Wish It Had Been a Dream" are closer to the Louvins' feelings about the destructive power of love gone wrong than anything on the tribute. And there are few better songs about making sense of the spiritual and secular than "The Great Atomic Power." Ripe for a remake in a WMD world, it's a plea for salvation in that moment "when the fire rains from on high." Not if--when.

Universal of all labels ought to know that mentioning God on a country record isn't exactly commercial suicide: the sound track to O Brother, Where Art Thou?, another Universal release, sold seven million copies, mainly on the back of "I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow," originally recorded by the Stanley Brothers in 1949. The new version introduced the God-fearing folk music of Ralph and Carter Stanley to a lot of people for whom the word "God-fearing" wouldn't ordinarily be a selling point. Singing in their otherworldly voices, they recorded some of the most bracing and harrowing songs in bluegrass, and in much of popular music generally; few oeuvres sound so scary by being so simple.

That song, along with the other, mostly sacred songs on the O Brother sound track, has given the 75-year-old Ralph Stanley's career a remarkable second act (Carter died in 1966), including a Grammy-winning solo album, a spot on the O Brother tour, and a pair of songs on the sound track to the upcoming Cold Mountain. Still, Stanley is aging, and if his banjo-playing and singing skills have weakened somewhat and his recall of lyrics has diminished to the point where he now brings printouts onstage--which he clutched but never consulted at the Old Town School last Sunday--he's enough of a showman to make it part of his act. "Pray for me and bear with me," he told the audience before singing the murder ballad "Pretty Polly."

Backed by a youthful six-piece band, Stanley built his set around spirituals: "A Robin Built a Nest on Daddy's Grave," "Angel Band," "Constant Sorrow," "Lift Him Up, That's All." Nobody in the audience mistook the show for a revival meeting, nor some sort of exploitative play for authenticity. For Stanley, as for the Louvins, writing about God is a way to express his faith, but it's also a sensible approach to good songcraft; a spiritual, like any well-turned story, is a way to address issues of human conflict. Christianity didn't make O Brother sell like that. Good songs about death and loss and fear, on the other hand, can get a cash register ringing.

The centerpiece of the set was "O Death," which Stanley sang a capella, in a careworn voice that suggests a line like "O death, won't you spare me over till another year?" means a great deal to him. It was, in fact, Stanley's showstopper, which in his brand of bluegrass means a creeping chill of something larger and more fearsome at work pervades the room; when he got to the line about death a-movin' upon his soul, a baby in the audience began to wail.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.

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