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Charlie Louvin dies at 83; country singer

With his brother and singing partner Ira, Charlie Louvin created a harmonizing sound that inspired the likes of the Everly Brothers, the Beatles, Emmylou Harris and successive generations of musicians.

January 27, 2011|Randy Lewis
  • Charlie Louvin was a star of the Grand Ole Opry for more than half a century.
Charlie Louvin was a star of the Grand Ole Opry for more than half a century. (Tennessean / MCT )

Charlie Louvin, the country singer whose scintillating harmonizing with his brother Ira created a distinctive template for duet singing that strongly influenced the Everly Brothers, the Beatles, the Byrds and successive generations of singers including Gram Parsons, Emmylou Harris, Beck and Jack White, died Wednesday in Nashville of complications from pancreatic cancer. He was 83.

The Louvin Brothers' sound, with Ira's pure high tenor typically floating atop Charlie's strong tenor-baritone melodies but often switching mid-song, derived from church-based "shape-note" singing, an a cappella style they picked up while growing up in their musically inclined family in rural Alabama.

They became arguably the most influential harmony team in the history of country music, and thus made their impact on countless country and bluegrass singers as well as a broad spectrum of rock and pop acts. They were a key influence on the Everly Brothers, the country act that made the biggest pop crossover of all the sibling country groups. By extension, they helped shaped the sound of the Beatles, who were huge fans of the Everlys.

"They influenced everybody by the quality of their music," Phil Everly said Wednesday through his son, Jason. "Harmony just got a lot better in heaven."

In addition to their signature harmonizing, the Louvins wrote numerous songs that have become classics in country and bluegrass music, among them "If I Could Only Win Your Love," which gave Harris her first Top 10 country hit; "When I Stop Dreaming"; "Every Time You Leave"; "The Christian Life," covered in the '60s by the Byrds and more recently by the Raconteurs; and "The Great Atomic Power," which Jeff Tweedy's alt-country band Uncle Tupelo recorded in the 1990s.

"Whether you're just a fan or a working artist who was influenced by them, I think we owe them a huge debt — both of them," Chris Hillman, a founding member of the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers, told The Times on Wednesday. "Charlie did not just fade away into the woodwork after Ira died, even though he was the dominant member of the group. Charlie had hits of his own, and had a great career, and he was vital all the way up until he got this pancreatic cancer. He had plans to do another album, and we wanted to do [the Burrito Brothers' song] 'Sin City' together."

Said Harris: "He really changed the world of music, Charlie did. I know that, for me, hearing the Louvin Brothers brought me that fierce love of harmony."

In a statement, Dolly Parton called him "one of my truly good friends, someone I loved like a brother. The Louvin Brothers were my favorite when I was young and growing up in the business."

Added Garth Brooks, through a spokeswoman: "Charlie Louvin was [one] of the pioneers that not only led the way in traditional music and entertainment, but was influential in lending a hand to the next generation coming up with the dream of continuing the tradition of the [Grand Ole] Opry and what it represents. Truly, a good man."

Charlie Eizer Loudermilk was born July 7, 1927, one of seven children who grew up on the family's 23-acre farm in Sand Mountain, Ala.

His brother Lonnie Ira, who was three years older, got a mandolin when he was 19 and urged his 16-year-old brother to learn guitar so they could play music together. Their father played a banjo but believed that music should be properly used for recreation, not as a career.

But after the Louvin boys earned $3 each for playing music all day at a Fourth of July celebration in Flat Rock, Ala. — more than six times the 50 cents their father was paid for laboring from dawn till dusk on the farm — Ira and Charlie started viewing music as an escape route. They changed their name for the stage, and later legally, because "we got tired of being called 'Ira and Charlie Buttermilk' or 'Ira and Charlie Sourmilk,'" Charlie said later.

The brothers played whatever shows they could, performing on radio when the opportunity arose, and, after each brother's brief military service, started making records in the late 1940s for a succession of labels, without great success.

After being dropped by MGM Records, Hank Williams' label, they landed a contract with Capitol Records, singing gospel music.

"They didn't need us as a country duet," Charlie recalled later, "but they would hire us as gospel duet. They had Jim and Jess [McReynolds] and, in the old days, a label wouldn't have more than one country duet. We said, 'OK, we'll take that. Anything.'"

But their gospel records didn't connect in a big way either. In 1955, they decided to try their luck with a secular song they'd written, "When I Stop Dreaming."

It became their first top 10 hit, thanks to their harmonies that used unconventional intervals drawn from the shape-note tradition and poetically bittersweet lyrics of a broken love affair.

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