Charlie Louvin’s phlegmy, tobacco-stained voice threatened to fade away amid the recording of his self-titled album of last year, but producer Mark Nevers found a calm, folkish context for the great country singer’s poker-faced demeanor and old man’s croak. Even with the likes of Marty Stuart and Elvis Costello pitching in, that album didn’t play like a country record or a star-studded reminder of past glories. It simply presented a canny musician’s take on some classic material, so that Louvin seemed more bemused than bluesy on Jimmie Rodgers’ “Waiting For A Train” and suitably detached about the coming apocalypse on “The Great Atomic Power”. Because Nevers eschewed even the suggestion of duplicating Ira Louvin’s eerie harmony vocals and mandolin, the record sounded fresh and unpremeditated, and the famous guests mostly stayed out of the way. (George Jones, of course, made himself felt in two seconds, and Tom T. Hall managed to sound warm, not curmudgeonly.) When Charlie sang about his late brother in “Ira”, it was clear he regarded death as a way station, not an ending.
Louvin’s Steps To Heaven finds Nevers again at the helm on a collection of straight-down-the-line gospel songs. Cut live over two days at Nevers’ Nashville studio, Steps is even more minimal than its predecessor. Charlie sings, a choir composed of three sisters back him up and clap hands, and Derrick Lee’s piano brings restraint and dignity to the performances. Bassist Chris Scruggs rounds out the rhythm section and gets in an occasional guitar lick. Louvin sounds his age, but his phrasing can be surprising, as on “If We Never Meet Again This Side Of Heaven”. He sounds fairly sanguine about the Rapture on “When The Roll Is Called Up Yonder”. Still, this is a record about death’s close approach, which means Louvin’s cracked whisper is appropriate to the material. “I’m tired, I’m weak and I’m worn,” he sings in “Precious Lord, Take My Hand”.
Nevers’ production is characteristically clear and modest. Lee’s piano never gets too dirty or genteel, and the choir – Alfreda McCrary Lee, Regina McCrary and Ann McCrary – doesn’t overpower Louvin. You come away from Steps To Heaven feeling a bit chastened and reflective; it’s a record with a firm grip, but with watery undertones. You can be a secularist and get off on these clear, precise colors, or you can muse about the idea of heaven (which is also an idea of peace and contentment on earth) that Charlie Louvin carries around in his head. He believes in it, and the music follows him every step of the way.