Ira and Charlie Louvin were perhaps the greatest brother duet in country history, and it’s a shame that so little of their recorded work has been available domestically on CD. Capitol has rectified the situation somewhat with the recent reissue of three classic Louvin Brothers albums.
The Louvins recorded a song for Apollo, a single for Decca and a series of sides for MGM before signing to Capitol in 1952. Like the bulk of their early recordings for other labels, the Louvins recorded exclusively gospel for Capitol until convincing producer Ken Nelson to allow them to try a secular song. “When I Stop Dreaming” was a huge hit in 1955, and the Louvins followed it with a string of commercially successful songs in 1956.
To capitalize on their new popularity, Capitol asked the Louvins to record an album. The brothers decided on an album of songs that reflected their own roots, particularly in the music of the famed brother duets of the 1930s. The Louvins’ high-pitched close harmony fused the smooth preciseness of the Delmore Brothers and Blue Sky Boys with the driving emotionalism of the Monroe Brothers, and their mandolin-guitar interplay was also a reflection of their admiration for the Monroes and the Blue Sky Boys. For their first album, Tragic Songs of Life, the Louvins chose to record primarily traditional songs associated with the earlier brother duets.
The album begins with the Karl and Harty paean to the bluegrass state, “Kentucky” (which was also a big hit for the Blue Sky Boys). While this song and its companion piece — the Louvins’ ode to their own “Alabama” — weren’t necessarily tragic, the heartfelt longing for a sense of place that they expressed made them sound as sad as the more explicitly doom-filled songs that surrounded them.
The sentimentalism and bleak tragedy of most of the other songs reflected ancient themes that went straight to traditional folk music’s heart of darkness. “My Brother’s Will” was written by Ken Nelson, but its theme of a man unable to carry out the wishes of his dying brother is as old as the hills. The Louvins’ own tearjerker, “A Tiny Broken Heart”, tells the poignant tale of a little boy watching the family of his young next-door sweetheart move away.
The old British traditional “Mary Of The Wild Moor” depicts the return of a prodigal daughter whose cries for help on a cold night go unheeded outside the door of her unforgiving father. The next morning the father finds her dead, and her new baby near death. The murder ballad “Knoxville Girl” also had roots going back to Great Britain, but the best Americanized version had been cut by the Blue Sky Boys — until the Louvins recorded their chilling rendition for this album. The grisly song actually became a minor hit for them three years after the album was recorded. (The song was revived once again on a live EP by BR5-49 released earlier this year, and also shows up on the new Lemonheads record.)
The dying soldier song “Take The News To Mother” was written during the Spanish-American war and later popularized for the country audience by the Callahan Brothers. The Louvins got the old traditional “What Is Home Without Love” from the Monroes, while “Katie Dear” was an ancient lovers suicide song associated with the Blue Sky Boys. The Louvins’ version of “In The Pines” was even more haunting than Bill Monroe’s famous recording. It’s perhaps their most powerful rendering of traditional folk music’s bleak vision of a dark and forlorn land, where love is absent and death is the only certainty. It’s the centerpiece of what is arguably the Louvins’ finest album.
While the traditional sentimental songs and tragic tales found on Tragic Songs of Life reflected the Louvins’ love of the Monroes and especially the Blue Sky Boys, their 1960 album A Tribute To The Delmore Brothers paid homage to the Louvins’ other important influence. The Louvins were from the same Northeast Alabama hill country that also gave birth to Alton and Rabon Delmore, and the 1930s Opry stars were the young Louvins’ favorites. Like the Monroes and the Blue Sky Boys, the Delmores recorded many traditional songs, but they also wrote a number of their own that were steeped not only in traditional country music, but also in blues and boogie.
All 12 songs on the Louvins’ tribute album were written by or appropriated by the Delmores. Many of them were older Delmores songs recorded for the Bluebird label that the Louvins had heard while growing up in Alabama. Later in the Delmores’ career, they moved to King Records; in the late ’40s, they began recording a successful string of blues and boogie tunes that were important precursors to rock ‘n’ roll. While the Louvins weren’t as influenced as strongly by the Delmores’ later recordings, those are still represented on the album by a handful of songs, including the Delmores’ best-known song, “Blues Stay Away From Me”. Featuring the great songs of the Delmores sung by country music’s finest brother duet, A Tribute To The Delmore Brothers rightly ranks as one of the music’s best tribute albums.
Given that Razor & Tie’s recent Louvins compilation gave short shrift to the brothers’ gospel side, it’s heartening to see Capitol also reissue one of their gospel albums, Satan Is Real. The Louvins began their career singing primarily gospel music, and it would be impossible to imagine their powerful singing style without that essential component. Even after they began making hit records, the Louvins recorded a number of gospel albums.
Recorded in 1958 and released the following year, Satan is Real was the Louvins’ third gospel album for Capitol, and the bold statement of its title signified the uncompromising nature of the Louvins’ beliefs. Whereas much country gospel of the ’50s was filled with feel-good platitudes that reflected the general optimism of the time, the Louvins’ gospel songs mirrored their own fire-and-brimstone Christianity. The fiery-tempered, hard-drinking Ira in particular knew all too well that Satan was real, and the aching intensity of his piercing high tenor symbolized his fervent desire to escape the hellhounds on his trail.
The album begins with the title song, which includes a preaching interlude from Ira (who felt he had passed up his true calling as a preacher). Satan Is Real features a number of other Louvins classics, including “River Of Jordan”, “The Christian Life” (later covered by the Byrds), “Are You Afraid To Die” (an earlier Louvins song that was recorded by Carl Story in 1952) and Mother Maybelle and the Carter Family’s “The Kneeling Drunkard’s Plea”.
While Satan Is Real is an excellent album, it’s too bad the superior The Family Who Prays (a 1958 release that compiled the Louvins’ early Capitol gospel singles) wasn’t reissued. Perhaps Capitol believed the Satan Is Real title and album cover (a striking Louvins-designed set piece showing Ira and Charlie singing in front of the fiery rocks of hell with a cartoonish Satan standing over them) would seem more exotic and enticing to alternative audiences that have recently discovered the Louvin Brothers. Regardless, the album is an essential document of a side of the Louvins’ music that was at least as important to them as their more famous secular recordings.
A footnote: It was recently announced that Capitol was suspending its reissue program. Here’s hoping the suspension is temporary and that the label continues to reissue some of the treasures that have been buried away in its vaults for too long, including other great Louvins albums such as The Family Who Prays, My Baby’s Gone and their tribute to Roy Acuff.
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Rounder has been a leader in the reissue field for years, and the label has now reissued the final album recorded by the Blue Sky Boys, the brother duet that had an immense influence not only on the Louvins, but on many other artists who have found the Blue Sky Boys’ recordings to be an invaluable source for traditional material.
Born in Hickory, North Carolina, Bill and Earl Bolick began recording for Bluebird in 1936. They initially retired from the music business in 1951 before deciding to perform again in the early ’60s. The Bolicks made a few more albums and sporadically performed at folk and bluegrass festivals before finally calling it quits in 1976.
The Blue Sky Boys were famed for their incredibly sweet and soft close-harmony singing, and for their commitment to the preservation of traditional folk music. While the Bolicks occasionally recorded a modern song such as “The Last Letter”, the great majority of their recordings were more old-time in nature and included sentimental parlor tunes, ancient British ballads, religious numbers and old Tin Pan Alley songs.
This self-titled album, recorded for Rounder in 1976 when the brothers were in their late ’50s, features songs the Bolicks used to sing on radio shows but had not yet recorded. Excepting the atypically bluesy “Let Me Be Your Salty Dog” and “Curley Headed Baby”, the songs are serious and sad. Like the Louvins’ first album, they are primarily concerned with life’s tragic side and include songs of lost love, suicide, murder, war, prison and death, along with the religious songs that offer at least some hope of relief from life’s hardships.
When this recording was made, the Bolicks’ harmonies weren’t quite as precise as they were in their youth, but the gentle sweetness of their singing was still powerfully affecting. The Bolicks accompany themselves on mandolin and guitar with no additional instrumentation, just as they did through most of their career. With their final recording, the Blue Sky Boys created a worthy addition to a remarkable body of work that stands as one of American music’s richest repositories of traditional folk songs.