Charlie Louvin RIP

Charlie Louvin, one-half of the greatest brother duo in country music history, went on to meet his higher power early this morning. He was 83. He leaves behind a ton of great music, both with his brother Ira (Satan Is Real, Tragic Songs of Life, A Tribute to the Delmore Brothers) and by himself (Charlie Louvin, Steps to Heaven and any number of albums you can only find on vinyl, the best of which are mostly on this greatest hits CD).

When I first heard of the Louvin Brothers (sometime in the mid-1990s), I assumed I'd missed my chance to ever hear them live. Those piercing harmonies seemed to be from somewhere way back in the ether, and even if they were alive and, even more improbably, performing, there was no way a college kid in Ithaca was going to see them anytime soon.

Turns out one of the Louvins was still around and, according to the article I read in the first No Depression I ever got my hands on, he was recording, living near Nashville, and playing the occasional live show and Grand Ole Opry performance. But Nashville seems impossibly far away when you're surviving on the kindness of your parents and, well, not much else. So seeing Charlie Louvin perform seemed a pipe dream. And even when I made it to Nashville in 2002, Charlie was nowhere to be seen on either of the Grand Ole Opry shows I went to (though Loretta Lynn was, so it wasn't a total loss). I began to have my doubts I'd ever see him.

Finally, in September 2003, on a bill put together by Cake, a band whose music I don't like but whose taste I have no quarrel with, Charlie Louvin came to New York City for a show with Cake, Cheap Trick, and the Detroit Cobras. I bought my ticket, counted down the days, and finally headed out in the early afternoon with my Charlie Louvin LP to see if I could meet the man before the show.

I was running a little late, so I hustled off the subway and made my way to Roseland just in time to see two guys unpacking their car and heading toward the stage door. I wasn't entirely sure what Charlie looked like, but I was reasonably confident that he was the older of the two guys. Luckily, I was right, and after listening to me babble about how honored I was to meet him and how psyched I was to see him perform, he signed my record and I was just about as happy as I could possibly be.

Inside Roseland, I was standing next to a couple of guys who had no idea who Charlie was, something akin to a crime in my mind at the time (and the passing years haven't dimmed that thought much). I tried my best to explain, and to help them with the pronunciation of his last name, but once I said "country," they looked confused. One of them piped up.

"You mean, like Johnny Cash?"

"Um, yeah, I guess."

"Is he as big as Johnny Cash?"

"Well, it depends who you ask, I guess."

"No, he can't be bigger than Johnny Cash."

"Well, if you asked Johnny Cash, he'd probably say Charlie was bigger."

"No way."

It wasn't a fun conversation, and I didn't bother asking what they thought of Charlie after the show. I'm sure they didn't like him as much as they liked Johnny Cash (or at least the three Johnny Cash songs they'd heard). But I did, even if the voice that came out of Charlie at Roseland wasn't anywhere near what I'd heard on Satan Is Real or Tragic Songs of Life. I was in the same room when Charlie Louvin was singing, and that was good enough for me.

I was lucky enough to see Charlie live five times after that (and to see him shoo away a woman in Lancaster, PA, who, I think, had asked him to sign her boob), and it never stopped being cool to be breathing the same air as Charlie Louvin.

I'm sad that Charlie breathes no more. It's a worse world today without Charlie Louvin in it. But I've had a better life for having heard Charlie Louvin sing Louvin Brothers songs up close. So, thanks, Charlie. Hope you and Ira are getting reacquainted.

Here's just some of Charlie's best. Buy his CDs if you haven't.

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