Across the evening sky
All the birds are leaving
But how can they know
It’s time for them to go?
Before the winter fire
I will still be dreaming
I have no thoughts of time
For who knows where the time goes
Who knows where the time goes?-Sandy Denny, 1967
Just 20 years old when she wrote those words, Sandy Denny seemed wise well beyond her days, as if the spirit of the ages had been channeled through someone who couldn’t possibly have gathered the life experience to make such poignant observations about the earth’s never-ending rotation. Underscoring the irony is the fact that Denny died from a fall down a flight of stairs 11 years later, leaving this world long before it was time for her to go.
But the song lives on.
September brought a rare and unexpected treasure to the record racks in the form of The Longest Train, the first new album from Charlie Louvin in seven years. As a member of the Louvin Brothers, whose close harmonies and memorable songwriting during the 1950s and early ’60s made them one of the most accomplished and influential duos of their era, Charlie has earned an esteemed place in country music history. His brother Ira died in a car wreck in 1965, shortly after the two had stopped performing together. Charlie, now 69, has remained active, recording occasional solo albums and still appearing regularly at the Grand Ole Opry.
The Longest Train is a welcome return to the recorded form for Louvin, and an interesting pairing of his talents with a younger generation of accompanists. Produced by English singer-songwriter Julian Dawson, the album features a backing band highlighted by renowned guitarists Steuart Smith and Barry Tashian, plus harmony vocals by the likes of Rosie Flores, Katy Moffatt and Jim Lauderdale. The contents include half a dozen songs from the Louvin Brothers’ heyday, as well as three written by Dawson (perhaps a bit overly indulgent on the producer’s part, as these are generally the disc’s weakest tracks).
But the real highlight is a trio of songs — “I Wanna Die Young (At A Very Old Age)”, “Turn Around”, and Denny’s “Who Knows Where The Time Goes” — that seem ideally suited to an artist who has seen the birds leaving and the seasons changing often enough to have no thoughts of time. (It seems particularly fitting that Denny’s song answers the title of the Louvin Brothers’ classic “When I Stop Dreaming” with the lyric, “I will still be dreaming.”)
“I love what the song says,” Louvin said in a telephone interview from his home in Wartrace, Tennessee, in early October. “I’ve often wondered how do the birds know when it’s time to go. The fickle friends [another lyric in the song], I can understand that — when the food and booze is gone, they leave. But the birds is another story.”
Ironically, Louvin wasn’t familiar with the tune when Dawson first suggested they record it, despite the fact that it was the title track of one of Judy Collins’ better-known albums in the late ’60s (in addition to appearing on a Fairport Convention album during Denny’s tenure with that band).
“Julian gave me a record, I think it was Judy Collins,” Louvin recalled, “and I couldn’t understand what she was sayin’. So three or four different times I faxed Julian in London and told him, ‘Julian, I need the words on that song, I can’t even figure out what she’s sayin’, and I need the words before I can learn the melody.’ So the day that he came in [to Nashville], and we were going to record that evening, he brought the words with him. So I said, ‘Well, I’ll tell you what, it’s an odd song, it don’t lend itself to the kind of music I’ve been doing.’ I said, ‘Julian, you go ahead and put your voice on this rough soundtrack, and let me take it home, with the words, and tomorrow I’ll see if I can record mine.’ And that’s kind of the way it happened. But it’s like an easy-listening song; it’s not a Charlie Louvin-style song.”
Indeed — and that’s one of the reasons it comes across as such a revelation, with Louvin’s weathered-and-worn yet still special voice providing the soul and spirit that Denny’s words seemed to call for in the first place, at last fully realized three decades hence. It’s intriguing, however, to hear Louvin refer to it as “an easy-listening song,” given that Denny is considered one of the primary figures in British folk-rock. A similar situation surfaces later when we’re discussing Texas country singer/yodeler Don Walser, with whom Louvin was scheduled to play a show at the Broken Spoke in Austin later in October. “He sings a fine two-step song,” Louvin said. “If I were to go out dancin’, I’d like to go where Don was playing, but I’d have to set out three-fourths of the tunes because it was rock ‘n’ roll.” Don Walser — rock ‘n’ roll? Well, there’s an observation you don’t hear every day.
Louvin’s uncommon perspective in both of these instances simply reveals that he’s from a different era, when “rock ‘n’ roll” or “easy listening” or “country” may have carried very different meanings than they do today. It also points out the shortcomings of genre tags as a way of describing or categorizing music; how else to explain a classic country artist such as Louvin being covered in a magazine devoted to “alternative country”? (Whatever that is.)
Of course, much of the reason classic country artists are more likely to be discussed in alternative avenues nowadays is because the powers-that-be in modern-day Nashville no longer dance with those who brung ‘em. “If I had a big truck, I could round up a truckload of good artists who have made the record companies millions, but do not have a label in this town today,” Louvin says. He knows whereof he speaks, as he was in the same boat (er, truck) until Dawson convinced the folks at Watermelon, an Austin-based indie, to sign Louvin.