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Published: 2007/01/21
by Brian Gearing

self titled – Charlie Louvin

Tompkins Square

Here’s what I know about country music: When I was in tenth grade in the Shenandoah Valley and thought I wanted to be a good ol’ boy, I listened to a lot of it — mostly Garth Brooks and Alan Jackson, though I also had an appreciation for Hank Williams, Jr. and Willie Nelson. My grandfather preferred the softer side, like Ronnie Milsap and the Mandrell Sisters, but they didn’t sing enough about beer or fishin’ for me. Being that there was a Jr. attached to Bocephus’ name, I knew there was a “classic” predecessor to the country music of my tastes, but I soon moved on to the next phase of my adolescent identity search and put away the cowboy boots and spit cups, and only years later discovered that, while my particular CMT brand of country music had still clung to some semblance of what made country country, the younger artists had sifted its outlaw spirit through a radio pop filter to produce a bland mush whose Disney-esque content was suitable for consumption by NASCAR dads and Southern Baptists.

Here’s what I know about Charlie Louvin: Everything I read in his press kit. He’s been making records since 1947 and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2001 together with his brother Ira, as part of the Louvin Brothers. He’s had a major influence on everyone from Johnny Cash to Uncle Tupelo, and he’s been making country music since long before Alan Jackson and Garth Brooks were diggin’ coochie down on the Chattahoochee. His voice sounds like it crawled out of the tobacco-stained floorboards of an abandoned cotton barn and, with all its splinters and stains and cracks, it still sounds a helluva lot better than Shania Twain or Toby Keith.

I also know from listening to his newest, self-titled release (his first in over ten years) that Mr. Louvin, like his contemporary counterparts, would also prefer that his music be suitable for NASCAR dads and Southern Baptists, though he also plays to kneeling drunkards and penitent murderers. What he apparently doesn’t much consider is that generic Wal-Mart appeal known as “radio-friendliness.” None of the music on this album will be played on modern country radio for the following reasons: it won’t sell Ford trucks, drunk secretaries can’t scream along with it at the top of their lungs with a lighter aloft in their left hands and an eight-dollar lukewarm Coors in the other, and the only people who will appreciate it are those who don’t buy their music at the mall.

Chances are Jeff Tweedy, Elvis Costello, Bobby Bare, Sr., George Jones, Will Odlham and Marty Stuart don’t buy their records at Sam Goody, though some may drive Ford trucks, and all of them guest on this record. Aside from Costello, whose vocal turn in the broken-hearted ballad “When I Stop Dreaming” is overshadowed only by Louvin himself, none of them make themselves conspicuous, though their presence speaks volumes for Louvin’s stature. They fit into their roles as perfectly as Louvin’s voice fits every known brand of country music covered on this record. Tweedy gets political on “Great Atomic Power,” a song he often covered with Jay Farrar in Uncle Tupelo. George Jones can’t stop loving her on the opening “Why Must You Throw Dirt in My Face,” a proper tear-in-my-beer kickoff to a record as diverse as country music itself. Along with the dead heart and broken dog clichare the sawdust shuffle of Jimmie Rodgers’ “Waiting for a Train,” the Texas swing of “Blues Stay Away from Me” and the Appalachian pickin’ of “Long Journey Home.”

That bluegrass sound touches just about every track via Marty Stuart’s mandolin, but as sweet as Stuart sounds, nothing can touch the ghostly echo of Ira Louvin’s eight strings on Charlie’s tribute to his beloved brother, who passed in a car crash in 1965. On “Ira,” Louvin’s lyrics are a musical eulogy, and they hold all the pain and sincerity of Neil Young’s post-death scare reflections. Not that Louvin ever sang the Devil's music (he and Ira issued an album titled Satan is Real back in the ’60s), and he’s sure not singing it now. I really don’t know much about country music, but I do know this: without sin and redemption, it wouldn’t exist, and Nashville’s current crop of American idols better hope that Louvin’s prayers are enough to answer for their sins, too, because with a record like this, I know where he’s headed when his train comes around the bend.

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