If any classic country act deserves the wider exposure a big-name tribute can provide, it’s the Louvin Brothers. Mostly appreciated by alt-country fans for the presumed gothic kitsch of recordings such as “The Great Atomic Power” and “Knoxville Girl”, and likely known to today’s mainstream country fans not at all, the Louvins — Charlie on high tenor and guitar, Ira on higher tenor and mandolin — sang in harmonies so emotionally naked it sometimes could feel as if their suspicious minds were being vivisected right there on the vinyl.
Indeed, a paranoid fatalism looms large in the brothers’ songs. Ira’s lyrics seem to expect doom, despair and dishonor as a matter of course. In the duo’s debut hit, “When I Stop Dreaming”, for instance, Ira delivers the words “the first time I ever have wanted to die” with a vocal grimace that suggests he now takes it for granted there will be a second, a third and a fourth.
Livin’, Lovin’, Losin’, produced by Carl Jackson, captures this grim mood expertly. Calling in the favors he’s won by picking bluegrass and writing hits for mainstream country acts, Jackson has brought together 29 stars, both young and old, and without exception they place the focus where it should be: on the picking, the songs, and the harmonies.
My favorite number here might be Merle Haggard’s pleading-for-mercy duet with Jackson on “Must You Throw Dirt In My Face”. But, really, everything here is as strong. With Rhonda Vincent providing harmony, Joe Nichols lays down the best vocal of his young career on “Cash On The Barrelhead”. Ronnie (Brooks &) Dunn and Rebecca Lynn Howard nail some fiercely beautiful harmonies on “If I Could Only Win Your Love”; the same can be said for Patty Loveless and Jon Randall (“Are You Teasing Me?”), Vince Gill and Terri Clark (“I Can’t Keep You In Love with Me”), and Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell (“My Baby’s Gone”). Others who appear include Linda Rondstadt, Glen Campbell, James Taylor, Allison Krauss, and Ira’s daughter Kathy Louvin.
The set closes with a trio of gospel duets, featuring Dolly Parton with Sonya Isaacs, Marty Stuart with Del McCoury, and Pam Tillis with Johnny Cash & the Jordanaires. It’s a good reminder that, amidst their tragic songs of life, the Louvins found moments of transcendence as well.