The Louvin Brothers are a true mix of yin and yang; they manage to be one of the most un-hip groups of all time, while at the same time influencing a whole roster of bands and artists across a wide spectrum of music with their gospel old timey close harmony country music. Their album covers regularly pop up in the ‘worst covers of all time’ lists with their literal takes on heaven and hell and God and Satan (Google ‘Satan Is Real’ for an example). On the flip side there is no cooler name to drop into the conversation in interviews for young country and Alt. country groups today when stating your influences in the country and bluegrass milieu.
Although The Lovins were primarily a gospel duo to simply dismiss them as a bunch of bible bashing hicks would obviously be a grave error as they have produced some of the strongest raw country music that the genre has to offer, and brought the true power of music to both the shakiest of drunks and clean living housewife alike.
Country music is one of those genres that although is part and parcel of the inner fabric of rock and roll is still less appreciated than the cooler Blues and R&B side of the equation. Over the years the rock scene has dipped back into the country bag and with great results i.e. The Byrds Sweetheart of the Rodeo an album which equals anything in their more psychedelic back catalogue in my opinion. In fact on this Sweeheart album the later line up of the group include a version of The Louvin Brothers penned track ‘The Christian Life’ proving that Ira and Charlie were indeed still appreciated and respected by the rock fraternity within their own lifetime. The main instigator behind this inclusion may have been the newly appointed ‘Byrd’ Gram Parsons who along with Bob Dylan was ignoring the San Francisco summer of love scene and headed out to discover their own down- home roots approach. Dylan in fact had ignored the whole ‘love generation’ and Woodstock ideal and retreated back to his log cabin to record Nashville Skyline, a record that included guests such as Johnny Cash as opposed to his speed influenced ‘thin wild mercury sound’ that had come before.
Gram Parsons especially had been using his knowledge and love of The Louvin Brothers catalogue as well as his country heritage to influence by osmosis The Rolling Stones late 60’s and early 70’s great run of albums. His influence helped pull them in the direction of Bakersfield rather than urban Brooklyn and showed them the music and legacies of George Jones and Merle Haggard. This new shot in the arm was instantly absorbed by the Richards/Jagger song writing team and gave a welcome boost to there usual daily diet of Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters which in itself helped add hidden textures and a fresh canvas for the group previously bound by the 12 bar blues formula.
Like all music, the county and bluegrass genre evolved and became more commercial, whereas before it had been a skeletal group of musicians playing in theatres and small churches, it now turned into primetime entertainment. The small groups were now replaced by whole groups of musicians decorated in rhinestones trying to compete with the latest pop music of the day. But long before neon Las Vegas cowboys, and indeed the resurgence of true country music with the Oh Brother Where art thou? resurrection in 2000, there was The Louvin Brothers.
The album here Handpicked Songs is a compilation album who’s tracks have been individually chosen by other artists influenced by Ira and Charlie Louvin’s music including Beck, Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams, Kris Kristofferson, Will Oldham and many more. You won’t find the loner lone wolf Man in Black style of Johnny Cash’s country or indeed the smiles and showbiz style of Dolly Parton version, but what you have instead is music from an almost other time altogether. Tracks like ‘Cash on The Barrelhead’ musically sound like cousins of songs such as ‘Mystery Train’ or ‘That’s Alright Mama’ while keeping the halos firmly in place. While songs such as ‘The Great Atomic Power’ give an almost smirk to the future anti nuclear songs by turning the threat into a warning of the forthcoming Rapture while managing to keep the front row clapping and stomping along throughout. Some songs here are pure gospel and rival devotional offerings against any of the hand waving and fainting soul music you can mention. Songs like ‘I See A Bridge’ and ‘Almost Persuaded’ showing both sides of the coin from purest faith in God to the struggles of doubt that I’m sure everyone from Priest to Rabbi to Buddhist Monk, face throughout their lives every time they look into a mirror.
The story of The Louvin Brothers isn’t all smiles and sunshine and was filled with sadness throughout (Ira struggled with alcohol throughout his career and after the groups breakup was tragically killed in a car crash, a sad irony here was that it was the other drivers fault as opposed to the probable fault of the drunk Ira behind the wheel). With all the drama of a great gothic southern story, this album is a perfect compendium of work left for posterity as a reminder of a time when white lightning was still was the biggest thrill of all.