Charlie Louvin slid from the seat of his new Allis Chalmers tractor, wiping the perspiration from his face with a faded red bandana handkerchief.
He laughingly explained the seat of his blue and white pin-striped overalls were wet because of that morning’s rain shower, as he ushered us into a neat farmhouse where we spent the morning at his mother’s chrome-legged kitchen table.
That was my husband’s and my introduction to one of the greatest names in all of country music in the early months of 1983.
I was on assignment to write a feature about the Louvin Brothers, as Charlie and his late brother Ira, had been known throughout their two-decades-long career before Ira’s tragic death in 1965. But Charlie’s story, until that date, and remarkable career, until his death from pancreatic cancer in late January of this year, continues to be an inspiration to even many of the youngest of today’s country fans.
That long ago morning as Charlie began sharing black and white photos of his and Ira’s appearances and friends, I began to sense quickly I was sitting in that small kitchen with music royalty.
He’d sung with and for some of the most important people in the world; he’d been a member of the esteemed Grand Ole Opry since 1955; he and Ira were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1979 and the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2001; and just about everybody who is anybody had recorded covers of their songs including the Everly Brothers AND Emmylou Harris, who had a hit with the Louvin’s "If I Could Only Win Your Love" in 1975.
But here was Charlie, sipping coffee at his mama’s kitchen table, fresh off his tractor where he’d been grading for the music park he hosted on his old family farm for several years, treating me, a then-fairly-young, fresh-faced reporter, as if he’d known my husband and me all our lives.
Charlie explained his philosophy about music and generally about people as he talked about many of his performances and his opening of that little music park.
"We’ve got to bring the music back to the people," he said simply.
And Charlie continued doing just that.
He continued making appearances and even cut another album after his cancer diagnosis, and his website notes the "cancellations" of the shows scheduled into February and March, shows he missed only because of his death!
Charlie’s love of people and his simple country outlook didn’t change whether he was playing for $2 a day or thousands. And that’s why this now-older reporter joined the ranks of Charlie Louvin fans at their very first meeting.
We were guests at some of those early festivals (my husband’s favorite was the afternoon he spent sitting under a shade tree with "Grandpa" Jones while he waited to perform).
Charlie explained to me then: "You know, Ira and I were just simple country boys. There were seven of us kids in the family and we were what you would call ‘dirt poor.’ I’ve often wondered if maybe that’s why Ira had problems later on. The music life has a lot of ups-and-downs, but sometimes it’s the successes that are the most hard to handle.
"Music was our lives; maybe more so for Ira than for me. No matter what we tried or what other jobs we held, our lives centered around our music."
Charlie’s father, Colonel Loudermilk (Charlie and Ira changed their last names because they thought Louvin would be easier for fans to remember), played drop-thumb, clawhammer banjo in the Uncle Dave Macon-Grandpa Jones style. He stuck to his belief that music was for recreation and farming would have been a more honorable profession for his sons.
But Charlie later had the pleasure of introducing his father on the Grand Ole Opry on three separate occasions and he counted that as some of the proudest moments of his life.
Charlie, then 14, and Ira’s, then 17, first "professional" appearance was at a July Fourth celebration at Flat Rock in 1941. They sat in the middle of a "flying jenny," a large wooden circular platform. People paid a nickel for a five-minute ride. They sat on old church pews lining the circle, a mule provided the pulling power, and Charlie and Ira played two songs for each ride for the merry-go-round’s music! They made $2 each that day!
The brothers later moved to Tennessee, working in the cotton mills and later for the U.S. Post Office, while they either hosted or played on radio shows.
Ira was drafted, then Charlie entered the Air Force in 1946.
One of their first real breaks came when they hosted a radio show on WZOB back in Fort Payne called "Songs That Tell a Story."
Although the show only lasted for three weeks, it provided a foundation for such hits with Charlie and Ira accompanied only by their guitar and mandolin as they sang "The Family That Prays," "I’ll Never Go Back," and "What a Friend We Have in Mother."
In 1952, they landed a record contract with Capitol Records, but the company would only let them record gospel music, saying they already had a "country duo" in Jim and Jesse McReynolds, who ironically had landed their Capitol contract by singing the Louvin Brothers song, "Are you Missing Me?".
Charlie was recalled to the Air Force in 1953.
"To put it mildly, I didn’t want to go," Charlie told me. "Our careers seemed to be just taking off. They must have really wanted me. My wife Betty was three months pregnant with our first child and I was only three weeks shy of my 27th birthday, which was the age cut-off date then! I felt like I had already served my time, but I shipped out again, shortly after the release of ‘From Mother’s Arms to Korea.’"
After his return, Charlie and Ira were finally asked to be members of the Grand Ole Opry in 1955 and had a string of both gospel and country hits, but Charlie said the duo’s success was marred by Ira’s problems with alcohol. Their "opening act" at some venues was a young rocker named Elvis Presley, who Charlie remembered as a "nice young man."
Although they were still making hits in the 1960s, they disbanded as a duo.
Ironically, Ira had begun to straighten out his life, when he and his wife were killed in a wreck when the vehicle in which they were riding was hit by another car whose driver was later judged to be nine times over the legal Missouri alcohol limit, according to Charlie.
"If Ira had lived, I’m sure we would have been back together and, by the end of the 1960s and early-1970s, we would have had several hits because by then everybody was trying to copy the Louvin Brothers’ sound!" Charlie remarked.
Charlie went on to have numerous successful solo albums and successful duets with the likes of Melba Montgomery (with whom he shares a Grammy), Emmylou Harris, George Jones and even more contemporary artists like Elvis Costello. His 2007 album was again nominated for Grammy as Best Traditional Folk Album.
His "Steps to Heaven" album was likewise nominated as best Southern Country or Bluegrass Gospel Album.
Charlie, this last year, told the Associated Press he was "not afraid of dying," according to information provided by his manager Brett Steele.
"We’re all going to do that. And I’ve had 83 years of almost uninterrupted good health, so I know that’s not by accident. So I’ve been blessed that long, and I could use a couple more."
Charlie, the world—and this reporter—was blessed to have YOU.
(Many thanks to the good folks at BLUEGRASS UNLIMITED magazine, www.bluegrassmusic.com, who provided me with a copy of my 1983 Charlie Louvin article; to manager Brett Steele; and photographer Joshua Black Wilkins for their help with this article.)
Suzy Lowry Geno is a freelance writer from Blount County who can be reached through her website at www.suzysfarm.com.