Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Voice of an Angel

Category: Birthday/Tribute

Bill Monroe had a comment he used frequently whenever someone brought up the subject of tenor singers around him. "There ain't been but two tenors in country music," Monroe would say, "and Ira Louvin's the other one."

For all his boasting, and with all due respect to the Father of Bluegrass, Monroe wasn't even in the same league as Ira Louvin. NOBODY was. There were two tenor singers in country music, true: Ira Louvin, and those who wished they were. The man with the beautiful voice of an angel was born 85 years ago on April 21.

This may sound odd to say of a Hall of Fame inductee, but the Louvin Brothers were mostly in the wrong place at the wrong time. They bounced from one end of Tennessee (WNOX's Midday Merry-Go-Round) to the other (Memphis' WMPS) and discovered, more than one time, that people in other regions heard them singing their songs on the radio and copied them so it appeared that the Louvins were doing the covering. As their career picked up steam with a contract with MGM in 1951 Charlie was drafted again. (Charlie being drafted twice -- once for World War II and once for Korea -- led to a law being passed that stipulated prior service counted toward total service, ensuring that men didn't have to serve two four-year terms.) When they got to Capitol and wanted to try their hand at country music (they were known strictly as a gospel act until 1955), Capitol told them no, there was already a mandolin-and-guitar brother duet (Jim and Jesse) signed to the label and they didn't want "copycats." (Contrast that with today, where labels want copycats and nothing original!) When they persisted, Capitol allowed them to make a country record but warned them if it didn't sell they were off the label. Thankfully, their one shot was a masterpiece: "When I Stop Dreaming." And, just as their career took off, so did rock and roll, effectively draining a considerable audience away from them and all of country music.

In the book for the Louvin Brothers' eight-CD Bear Family box set Close Harmony, the late Charles Wolfe called Ira "country music's best post-Hank Williams songwriter." Songwriting is an aspect of Ira Louvin that many people tend to overlook. Louvin was a great songwriter, he was prolific, and he was quick. Charlie told the story of how their gospel song "I See a Bridge" came about, showing exactly how fast a song could come to his elder brother: as they drove along a river near their Sand Mountain, Alabama hometown they spotted a bridge that had been constructed over the river after they left home. Their sister, Lorene (the one for whom the My Baby's Gone song "Lorene" was named), was in the car with them and blurted out, "Ooh, look, I see a bridge!" "Ira stopped the car," Charlie said, "got out, and just like that, wrote the song on the spot." Charlie's assessment of his contribution to Louvin Brothers songs was that he "held the paper while Ira wrote the words." In addition to the Louvin Brothers songs, the Browns ("I Take the Chance"), Roy Acuff ("Baldknob, Arkansas"), Wilma Lee & Stoney Cooper ("West Virginia Polka"), and the Carlisles ("Is Zat You, Myrtle?") recorded songs that Ira and Charlie wrote.

The most enduring aspect of the Louvin Brothers is the thing that set them apart from everyone else, then and now: Ira's tenor singing. Charlie's voice was good, but nothing spectacular. Ira, on the other hand, could freeze Death Valley in the middle of summer with his exquisite voice. His voice was high enough to enable him to create a female character, Sal Skinner, for the Louvin Brothers' radio act. However, when he worked with Charlie Monroe's Kentucky Partners he actually was the bass singer.

There are a lot of people who will tell you that the only thing angelic about Ira was his voice. Without question, the man had his demons, most of which came out of a bottle. He fought many battles with booze, especially after 1958 when Louvin Brothers producer Ken Nelson (who, ironically, went into the Hall of Fame the same year as the Louvins) laid the blame on the decline in Louvin Brothers record sales to Ira's mandolin (instead of the meteoric rise in popularity of a young fellow on RCA Victor by the name of Elvis Presley). "Ira's drinking got a lot worse after that," Charlie said. Ira was almost schizophrenic: when sober, he was a polite, humble, give-you-the-shirt-off-his-back man; while drinking, he was an intolerable, instrument-smashing (think Pete Townshend of the Who invented that?) jerk. An argument with his third wife, Faye, resulted in Ira taking five bullets; and Faye (no angel herself while drinking) promised that she'd shoot him again if he didn't die.

By 1963 Charlie had taken all he could from the liquid Ira and broke the act up. No question Charlie loved his brother (listen to his marvelous 2007 tribute, "Ira," if you have any doubt) but he just could not work with him. Ira moved back to the family farm in Alabama and climbed out of the bottle, returning to the "good Ira" that everyone knew and loved.

In early 1965 Ira, married for the fourth time to a singer by the name of Anne Young, recorded 15 tracks for a solo album. He played some dates with his wife including a five-night stand in Kansas City in June.

While on the way home from the Kansas City date Ira, his wife, and a band member and his wife were killed in a car wreck near Jefferson City, Missouri. Ironically the man who had finally managed to control his drinking demon had his life ended by a drunk driver. Ira was just 41.

The Louvin Brothers enjoyed a resurgence in popularity, in many ways surpassing their popularity when they actually performed, thanks to fans like Emmylou Harris and Dire Straits' Mark Knopfler. It is hard to get through a bluegrass festival without hearing at least half a dozen different acts perform Louvin Brothers songs. They were finally inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2001 with eleven other acts including their producer, Ken Nelson, and their boyhood idols, the Delmore Brothers (who were honored with a tribute album by the Louvins in 1960).

There was only one Ira Louvin.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What a great writing!! Like the song Charlie sang, "There'll never be another you.....no I won't forget you!"
Ira was and still is, the BEST and only eternity will tell the souls he reached from his pen!
Thanks for the tribute!