Sings Murder Ballads and Disaster Songs – Charlie Louvin
Miss the dark humor from Johnny Cash? Feel that a few rounds with the Smiths' catalog is too chipper? The cure for your ills comes in the form of Charlie Louvin Sings Murder Ballads and Disaster Songs. Don’t let the wide grin by the Nashville legend fool you. The output is amounts to absolute truth in advertising. Now, it’s not as if I’m revealing any secrets by mentioning that the dozen tracks deal with various states of demise — car wreck (“Wreck on the Highway”), fateful lovers going the route of Romeo and Juliet (“Katy Dear”), the last hours in a coal mine (“Dark As A Dungeon”)... So, the subject matter won’t fit as your Saturday night party record.
But, Louvin and his collaborators overcome this with an elegance and respect found in the acoustic-based arrangements that are the polar opposite to much of the soft-rock-with-hint-of-twang sound infesting much of the output from Music City right now. Although it may be mournful, the effect actually creates a soothing to all the mayhem. The sum of voice, instrumentation and songwriting keeps one’s ears listening to the piling up of human debris, akin to gazing hypnotically at the scene of an accident. What’s most interesting about the material is that, like a horror film that scares you out of your seat without showing all the gruesome details, the emphasis of a story unfolding makes a stronger emotional connection over and over again.
Some of these numbers are works that the elder statesman of country has performed since his teenage years. They were the CNN of their day; folk songs based on true events and passed on from one musician to another, one audience to the next. So, when Louvin sings about the Titanic (“Down with the Old Canoe”) or a train wreck (“Wreck of the Old 97”), you’re able to follow the connection of history and artist moving across the years to a 21st century listener. And in that sense, the songwriting and the performing can be fascinating. On the other hand, with “The Little Grave in Georgia” we find something akin to that era’s Nancy Grace and/or Fox News. As Louvin relates the tale of the little girl now “sleeping” in Marietta, it neglects to mention that Mary Fagin’s accused murderer, Leo Frank, a Jew who owned the pencil factory where she worked, being a victim of a lynch mob. (Decades later Frank received a pardon due to the trial’s fudged testimony.) While historical fact gets in the way of a good story during that number, what Murder Ballads really does is haunt us with the unexpectedness of mortality. And in some grand way, it puts an exclamation point on the idea of celebrating our life at this moment.