"I'm singing today to a lot of the great-grandchildren of people my brother and I played to when they were young," says Tennessee-based songwriter Charlie Louvin. Known for his harmonies in vintage country/gospel act The Louvin Brothers, the gentlemanly, 82-year-old vocalist is a living legend, revered among critics and fans as one of the more influential members of the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Louvin and his band, The Smokin' Guns, plan to bring some of their most spiritual and colorful country songs to the Pour House stage this week. Paired with the rambunctious (and increasingly jazzy) rock/blues act The Dex Romweber Duo, it's one of the stand-out shows of the season.
"The people who like pure country music aren't able to get it on the radio, so this would be an outlet for them," says Louvin of the gig. "I want to say loudly that this will be a clean show. If grandma's there, she won't be insulted."
Louvin was born and raised in the small town of Henagar, Ala. (near Sand Mountain, not far from Chattanooga). In the late 1940s and early '50s, he and his brother and singing partner Ira Louvin started performing professionally around the South. They moved to Nashville with the dream of making it to the Grand Ole Opry. Bolstered by their "close harmony" singing style, they finally joined as official members of the Opry in 1955.
The Louvins' influence on country and rock 'n' roll extended from such '60s acts as Gram Parsons and The Byrds to the alt-country, bluegrass, and pop-rock acts of the '90s and 2000s, including Uncle Tupelo, Cake, Wilco, and the White Stripes.
"I still do a mixture of Louvin Brothers stuff and some gospel," Louvin says. "I do, to the best of my ability, a family show. I do songs like 'The Knoxville Girl' and 'The Christian Life.' We get several requests for those songs that artists like Gram Parsons, Marc Knopfler, Wilco, and others have cut on their own and introduced to the rock 'n' roll world. So, it's all hangin' in there.
"The songs of old had stories about real life," he adds. "They hit several people, whether they were religious songs or love songs. I've sang love songs that were so strong they've made a guy sitting in the club get up, go home, straighten his act up, and get his marriage back together. And I have also recorded some pretty mean songs ... when I look, I sometimes wonder, 'Was I that big of an A-hole?' [laughs]. But I love the song that has a nice melody to it and a story that I can believe."
After a lengthy hiatus from the studio, during which he only occasionally performed around the region, Louvin started writing and recording in recent years. His latest collections are Ships to Heaven and Charlie Louvin Sings Murder Ballads and Disaster Songs (featuring some deep Louvin Brothers classics), both released this year on the New York-based Tompkins Square label. Louvin has a new backing band of young musicians as well — The Smokin' Guns — featuring Louvin's oldest son, Sonny, on rhythm guitar, bassist and harmony singer Mitchell Brown, drummer Kevin Kathey, and vocalist/guitarist Bill Kelly ("the only Yankee in the band").
One of the major turning points in Louvin's musical career came when his brother Ira died in a car accident in 1965. Decades later, with a tight-knit band on hand, Charlie admits he feels his brother's presence every time he performs on stage.
"I've sang with a number of artists, but, I tell ya, there are no other Ira Louvins out there," Louvin says. "I've had some people that was pretty good, and we could sing Louvin songs together. He was a tremendous tenor singer. My brother's been gone for 45 years, but if I sing a song that's supposed to have harmony come in on the chorus, I unconsciously move to my left a little bit off the mic so the tenor can get in. Ira and I worked on that for 23 years, and you just don't get rid of 23 years very quick."
Louvin admits when he and his brother first recorded their music in the late '50s and '60s, he never thought they would be viable songs 50 years later. "We were simply trying to make a livin' — that's all we were doing," he says. "But the songs have lived, and a lot of them are still being re-recorded, especially in the bluegrass field."
Even after the hoopla over his two recent collections (another album is already in the works for 2010), Louvin remains humble and gracious, giving much of the credit for his success to his late brother and his musical partners.
"My brother was the gifted writer," says Louvin. "Songwriters are born; they're not trained. They can improve — I'm not sayin' that that don't happen — but my brother was a born songwriter. I was that guy who could listen to people talk, and catch something that sounded like a song title. I'd give that to my brother, and 10 minutes later, there'd be a song. It was so easy for him. I've written a few songs, and I've dreamed a few songs, where I woke up and just wrote down the melody and all of the words — and I'm grateful for the gift."
For this week's show, Louvin and his band have teamed up with N.C. rockabilly/roots act The Dex Romweber Duo, featuring singer/guitarist Dexter Romweber (formerly of The Flat Duo Jets) and drummer/sister Sara Romweber (formerly of Let's Active, Snatches of Pink). The Romwebers formed the act in 2006. Their latest album is Ruins of Berlin, released last winter on the Bloodshot label.
"It's a good package, I think," chuckles Louvin. "Dex ... he's loud. He and his sister, it's just the two of them, but they sound like a 15-piece band."
Louvin and the Romwebers first met and collaborated on songs this summer at an old-school roadside club in Nashville called The Loveless Café.
"I got up on stage with them at the end of the set and did an old song," Louvin remembers. "I said, 'Dex, that's about 25 percent faster than it's supposed to be,' but he disagreed."
Dexter fondly remembers that Loveless Café gig, too. "We met Charlie, and we actually played a song at the end of the evening on stage by the Carter Family called 'Worried Man Blues.' So it was me, my sister, a bass player, and Charlie that wrapped up the evening. It was very cool, you know? I'm looking forward to talking to him more about the fathers of country music. I only got a gist of what he knew, who he met ... I didn't know if he'd met Hank Williams, Sr. I didn't get a chance to ask him that. He played dates with Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and even Elvis, but I didn't get a chance to ask him about it."
Louvin seems equally as smitten with the Romwebers: "Dex sings good," Louvin says. "If you put a four- or five-piece band behind him and slowed him down a bit, he'd sound just as good as Frank Sinatra."