It’s a common sequencing strategy to put the weakest track on an album in the second-to-last position, where it does the least harm to musical momentum while setting the stage for a rousing finale. Often this track is the last to make the cut, or the one that doesn’t quite fit. On the first studio album in ten years from the younger of the legendary Louvin Brothers, the next-to-last cut is “Ira”, Charlie’s heartfelt tribute to his older brother. It’s not only the album’s essential track, it’s the linchpin that holds it all together.
“Your voice is strong, though you are gone, because I still hear your part,” sings Charlie of the sibling who died in a 1965 car crash, two years after the Louvin Brothers had split. “Ira, I still hear you, off in the distance, your sweet harmony. Ira, I still miss you; there’ll never be another, because you can’t beat family.”
Though it’s the only cut that doesn’t pair Charlie with guest-star luminaries — from George Jones to Jeff Tweedy to Elvis Costello — the ghost of the irreplaceable Ira hovers throughout, his unheard harmony an indelible vocal presence. There is no attempt here to replicate the classic sound of the Louvin Brothers; as he nears 80, Charlie sounds nothing like he did a half-century ago, and the guests mainly trade verses with him rather than harmonize. Yet the album attests, as if additional testimony were necessary, to what a crucial role the Louvins have played in country music in general and as an inspiration for alt-country in particular.
The project positions Louvin as a crucial link between country’s foundations (with material from Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family) and future (with beyond-category contributions from Will Oldham and members of Lambchop, Clem Snide and Bright Eyes). Among Louvin Brothers standards, “The Christian Life” gained its first exposure among rock fans when Gram Parsons brought it to the Byrds for Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, the 1968 album that remains the seminal country-rock release. If it was hard for hippies to hear the song at the time without a smirk of irony, it’s a straightforward proclamation here for Charlie, as it was on the Louvin Brothers’ Satan Is Real album.
When Uncle Tupelo injected punk into the equation for another generation’s country-rock revival, the Louvins’ “Great Atomic Power” on the band’s March 16-20, 1992 provided a traditional touchstone. The revival here with Jeff Tweedy on harmony builds to what sounds like a children’s chorus on a singalong that equates a nuclear doomsday with judgment day.
Though it’s likely that only Hank Williams rivals the Louvins as an age-old influence on alt-country, Charlie’s solo work hasn’t received the response among younger listeners that Ralph Stanley and Del McCoury have generated. While his voice today is far lower than the low tenor he brought to country’s greatest harmonizing duo (mandolinist Ira sang the high parts), its weathered and world-weary tone sounds even more appropriate to the material.
It’s hard for a murder ballad to get any darker than the matter-of-fact “Knoxville Girl”, or for heartbreak to sound more desolately abject than on “Must You Throw Dirt On My Face” and “When I Stop Dreaming”. The latter, performed as a duet with Elvis Costello, was the mid-’50s smash that took the Louvins from the spiritual into the secular arena. Yet as “The Christian Life”, the prayerful “Kneeling Drunkard’s Plea”, and even the apocalyptic revivalism of “Great Atomic Power” attest, sin and salvation have always provided the soul of the Louvins’ music.
For the rest of the musicians gathered, it’s plainly a tribute to the enduring inspiration of Charlie Louvin that he receives such stellar, trans-generational support. For Charlie, it’s a tribute to Ira: The album makes no attempt to duplicate his contribution, and thus he looms all the larger for its absence.