Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Remembering Ira Louvin


After the break-up of the Louvin Brothers in 1963, older brother Ira returned to his native Alabama while Charlie stayed in Nashville, becoming a successful solo artist with a Grammy nomination. The Louvins' record label, Capitol, convinced Ira to record some songs. He recorded 15 tunes in March of 1965, some of which included backing vocals by his wife, Canadian singer/yodeller Anne Young. In anticipation of the upcoming album, Ira played a few dates but quickly realized that life on the road was resurrecting the demons that drove him and Charlie apart as a performing duo. Before departing for the shows, which he went to because he was contractually obligated to do so, Ira told his mother he would never perform after these shows, but would instead devote himself full-time to ministry. "I've run away from God too long," Ira said.

Louvin's statement might seem odd to many, considering all the Gospel songs he wrote in his life. His songs mixed praise ("Thank God for My Christian Home") and preaching ("Satan is Real"). By many accounts, Louvin felt called to be a preacher from a young age. However, as a Baptist, he was shut out of the pulpit because of strict prohibitations against divorce. (Ira was married four times, the first time at age 17.) Nonetheless, he felt he had to devote the rest of his life to the service of God.

The shows were at Genova's Chestnut Inn in Kansas City, Missouri. In his autobiography Whisperin' Bill, Bill Anderson described the Chestnut Inn as an interesting combination of music nightclub where country (and rock -- Chuck Berry played there) performers entertained the crowd, while strippers performed between sets.
Following the shows, Ira, wife Anne, and another couple who were friends of Ira's from the Fort Payne area left Kansas City to return to Alabama. They stopped at an all-night diner at about 3:00 a.m. on Father's Day, Sunday, June 20, 1965, for some food, then continued on their way.
Interstate 70 was under construction at the time, with traffic reduced to one lane in each direction. The car Louvin was a passenger in (his friend from Fort Payne, Billy Barksdale, was driving) was heading east on the dark road, reportedly at a high rate of speed. At approximately 4:40 a.m. a car driven by 53-year-old Tommy Franklin of St. Louis smashed head-on into the Louvin car. Numerous opened liquor bottles and cans were found in Franklin's truck, and the accident was ruled caused by drunk driving.

The results were horrific. Four of the six occupants -- Franklin and his passenger, and Barksdale and his wife -- were killed instantly from the impact. The Louvins, in the back seat, were severely injured. By the time police arrived at the lonely stretch of interstate, Louvin had bled to death. Anne was still alive, but by the time she was transported to a hospital then sent to another one because the first hospital lacked the facilities to treat her, she too had passed away. Ira was 41; Anne was 38.
Charlie Louvin was on tour, performing in West Virginia. His wife, Betty, was home in Nashville. She was contacted while in church and asked to notify her husband that her brother-in-law was dead. Charlie performed his show as scheduled in West Virginia, then went back to Nashville to plan his brother's funeral.
On Wednesday, June 23, 1965, Ira and Anne Louvin were laid to rest in a common grave in the Harpeth Hills Memory Garden cemetery in suburban Nashville. Bill Anderson, who wrote the last hit of the Louvin Brothers' career ("Must You Throw Dirt in My Face"), wrote the epitaph on Ira's marker:
His fame was not a vapor that vanished with the dawn, for he etched upon the hearts of all mankind words and melodies that will remain as eternal as the God with Whom he now rests.
He is not dead, he is just away.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

SIRIUS Problems


As part of Dish Network, I have access to many of Sirius satellite radio's music stations. This allows a variety of music to come across the television. In many ways, this is a beneficial thing. I became acquainted with the likes of Charline Arthur and Dale Watson on those stations. One problem, however, is in the programming of music on the country music channels.

First, Sirius' "Classic" Country channel is missing something; namely, classic country. Their definition of "classic country" is mostly 80s stuff by Kenny Rogers or 70s songs by Crystal Gayle. Try hearing some Hank Williams on that channel. If you call and ask for Hank Williams, they'll probably play "A Country Boy Can Survive," assuming you meant Hank Williams, Jr.

Worse, though, is the "Outlaw Country" channel. This "country" channel features Little Feat, Lynyrd Skynyrd, John Hiatt, and Molly Hatchet.

I grew up in the 70s. Furthermore, I was stationed in Jacksonville (home of Lynyrd Skynyrd, and where founding member Ronnie Van Zant is buried). I never ever heard them (or their second generation southern rock cousins Molly Hatchet, who also hail from Jacksonville) referred to as "country." Yes, Lynyrd Skynyrd recorded "Blue Yodel #1 (T for Texas)" on One More From the Road and a Merle Haggard song ("I Know a Little") on Street Survivors. That doesn't make them "country," anymore than George Thorogood's rocking rampage on Hank Williams' "Move It on Over" makes "the Delaware Destroyers" "country" or R.E.M. called "country" because they did a falling-down-drunk rendition of Roger Miller's "King of the Road" (which, by their own admission, was so bad "Roger Miller should sue us"). Ernest Tubb recorded Billy Bland's "Let the Little Girl Dance" (and it was the B side of Tubb's version of Connie Francis' song "Everybody's Somebody's Fool"), and among Sonny James' numerous hits were covers of Ivory Joe Hunter tunes ("Since I Met You Baby," "Empty Arms"). However, that doesn't make them R&B singers. Alison Krauss recorded Bad Company's "Oh Atlanta" on Now That I've Found You. That neither makes Krauss FM rock nor Bad Company bluegrass.

At the 24th annual International Country Music Conference last month, Dr. Patrick Huber presented a paper discussing what the true "first country recording" was (the historical consensus gives that honor to Eck Robertson's 78 "Arkansaw Traveler" / "Sallie Gooden" from 1922). He pointed out that a recording of "Turkey in the Straw" dated to 1892 and could be considered the "first country recording." Rather, Dr. Huber argued, the argument might be better answered by seeing what the people of that era considered "country."

I don't totally agree with that position. After all, the first #1 song on Billboard magazine's "Hillbilly and Western Singles" chart when the chart debuted in 1944 was by Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters (their rendition of Al Dexter's "Pistol Packin' Mama" -- the Dexter recording was the second #1 single on the charts). Among the country legends with songs that have topped the charts you will also find such decidedly un-country names as Louis Jordan (who had two #1 hits), Nat "King" Cole (Jordan's "Is You Is or Is You Ain't (Ma' Baby)" took over the #1 position from the King Cole Trio's "Straighten Up and Fly Right"), and Lawrence Welk (his version of Spade Cooley's best-known song, "Shame On You," was #1 in 1945). According to Dr. Huber's argument, we must call these artists "country" because the country chart said they were in 1944.

However, these artists never considered themselves "country," and the majority of their fame was not found on the country charts. Lawrence Welk might have "a-one and a-two'd" accordion renditions of country songs on his long-running television show, but he never made an argument that he was "country." Tom Jones made the country chart with "Green Green Grass of Home" and "Say You'll Stay Until Tomorrow," but those were "left-field hits," not songs from a bona fide country singers. Certainly Jones or Welk never dominated the country charts for a year the way Eddy Arnold did in 1948 (there were seven songs to hit #1 that year, six of which were by Mr. Arnold).

Why, then, are those in modern country (artists and outlets such as Sirius) so quick to label as "country" things that, 30 years ago, were staunchly and unashamedly labeled "rock and roll?" It is obvious that modern country artists have grown up in an era of rock and roll and have been influenced by it. There isn't necessarily something "bad" in blending various styles: after all, this thing called "rock and roll" came about when country, rhythm and blues, and gospel were thrown in the proverbial melting pot together. There was, however, a difference: it was considered a new genre. No one then tried to sell that new phenomenon as "country" or "race records." They coined a new term for it (courtesy of Alan Freed).

Or, as Charlie Louvin said, "I'm just country. Let them come up with a new label for their music." Well put. If you pay money for a movie that is classified a "comedy" and you discover instead it's a horror film, you'll be upset. Let's call the music what it is. Ronnie Van Zant was never ashamed to be called a rock and roll singer, so why should the fans of the band he founded try to label him something different, 30 years after his death?

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Kentucky Headhunters At Crusade for Children


The country-rock act the Kentucky Headhunters were the headline performers at the 54th annual WHAS Crusade for Children in Louisville, Kentucky on June 2nd.

The Kentucky Headhunters, hailing from Munfordville, Kentucky, won a Grammy award in 1989 for their debut Mercury album Pickin' on Nashville, which featured the hits "Dumas Walker" and "Oh, Lonesome Me."

The WHAS Crusade for Children is the most successful local telethon in U.S. history, having raised over $118 million in the past 53 years for special needs children. Past headliners have included artists as diverse as Cab Calloway, John Davidson, Peabo Bryson, Johnny Rivers, Ricky Skaggs, Brenda Lee, and Riders in the Sky.