“I first met him [Dawson] in England, I think in ’88,” Louvin said. “He asked me what I was recording on, and I told him nothin’, I’d just kinda got tired of playin’ the game. Because about the time you think you’ve learned the rules, then all the players change, from the top again. So I just got tired of playing the games. I work all I want to, and I didn’t feel that I had to shine boots to get a record deal. So I told him that, and he said, ‘Well, that’s sinful. If I find a label that would pay for a session and put it out and distribute it, would you do it and let me produce it?’ And I agreed to do that.”
It took a few years before Dawson was able to arrange the deal with Watermelon, which had worked with Dawson both as a solo artist and as a member of Plainsong, a reunited British ensemble that also includes Denny’s old Fairport Convention bandmate Iain Matthews. Dawson was largely responsible for gathering the musicians who played on The Longest Train, most of whom Louvin had never met.
One exception was guitarist Barry Tashian, whose storied career includes opening the Beatles’ 1966 U.S. tour as leader of the Remains as well as stretches playing in the bands of both Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris. “I’d met him before; in fact, I’d worked in England on a show that he was on, and I knew that he was with Emmylou at one time,” Louvin said.
Tashian’s involvement with Parsons led us to the subject of Gram’s love for the Louvin Brothers’ catalog, expressed in his own rendition of “Cash on the Barrelhead” on Grievous Angel and in the Byrds’ version of “The Christian Life” on Sweetheart of the Rodeo. As an artist who played a major role in bridging the gap between country and rock audiences, Parsons seems partly responsible for keeping the Louvins’ music alive through a couple of generations.
Louvin knows one person, at least, to whom Parsons introduced the music Ira and Charlie recorded. “I would have to thank Gram Parsons for introducing the Louvin Brothers sound to Emmylou,” he says. “Emmylou tells me that Gram said, ‘I’ve got something here I want you to hear.’ And he played it, and Emmylou said, ‘Who is that girl singin’ the high part?’ And he said, ‘That’s not a girl, that’s Ira Louvin.’ And she has been very kind to the Louvin Brothers music catalog; she cut about four of five of our songs.”
Of course, Harris and Parsons haven’t been the only ones to carry on the Louvin Brothers’ legacy. Both Southern Culture on the Skids and Uncle Tupelo have recorded “The Great Atomic Power”, and several acts have recently revived “Knoxville Girl”, a song the Louvins didn’t write but were generally responsible for popularizing. Much of the Louvins’ music has also recently been made available to the public again, thanks to a Razor & Tie compilation, When I Stop Dreaming: The Best of the Louvin Brothers, released last year, and Capitol’s reissues this summer of the classic Louvins albums Tragic Songs of Life, Satan Is Real and A Tribute to the Delmore Brothers.
Asked if he’s surprised to see songs he and Ira played four decades ago still surfacing on today’s musical landscape, Louvin replies, “I don’t think I’d use the word surprised. It pleases me. I mean, I think they’ve carried it as far as it can be carried. And so, when you go as far down a road as you can go, you either have to turn left or right and go out in the woods, or you gotta turn around and come back.”
“Turn Around”, in fact, is the title of the last song on The Longest Train, and it’s a song Louvin himself turned around and came back to. “It goes way back. I heard a Harry Belafonte recording of it many years ago,” he said. “I heard it about the same time I heard the song ‘I Gave My Love A Cherry’, which was originally named ‘The Riddle Song’. I guess it would’ve been 40 years ago, or more, that I first heard those, so they’re old tunes.”
“Turn Around” appears on the record as a guitar-and-vocal-only number. While Louvin himself wasn’t particularly pleased with the version — “I would’ve liked for it to have been better; other instruments could’ve been on it” — it seems a beautifully minimalist way to conclude the album, with only Steve Wilkerson’s Spanish guitar backing Louvin’s lonesome vocal as he sings the longing lines, “Turn around, you’re two/Turn around, you’re four/Turn around, you’re a young man/Going out the door.”
As with Louvin’s version of “Who Knows Where The Time Goes”, this song vividly demonstrates the emotional impact that an artist in the autumn of his years can deliver. “Just because you get 40 or 45 or 50, or even as old as I am, that don’t mean that you can’t perform anymore,” Louvin says. “But the major labels absolutely won’t look at you…and I think that’s tragic, because some of the best music is done by older artists. I think that basically the whole world is wasting all their youth on the young these days.”
Louvin’s careful distinction between the words “youth” and “young” in that comment mirrors the sentiment put forth in Helen Hudson’s “I Wanna Die Young (At A Very Old Age)”, the penultimate and perhaps most significant track on the new record. Ironically, it was also one of the last songs to be selected for the album.
“I first heard that song in April or May of this year, just like a month before we cut it,” Louvin says. “I was up at the Opry one night, and there was a kid there, this kid’s not older than 21 or 22 years old. He calls himself Dak; I think his name is David Alley. He’s a very young writer, and we were just sittin’ in there, me an the people workin’ with me was running through a song, and he said, ‘Would you listen to a song that I play?’ And so I handed him the guitar and let him sing it. And I loved what it said. It just kind of floored me that a 22-year-old man would be thinking like that.”
Indeed, the song seems tailor-made for Charlie Louvin. With a spring in his voice that bounces along to the song’s rollicking arrangement, he declares, quite simply, all that needs to be said:
Over the hill there lies old age
But I ain’t a-gonna walk that way
If I lose a step or miss a beat
It won’t knock me offa my feet
Life’s too short to let it kill me.