Country music's history is filled with family acts. Several brother duets graced the airwaves throughout the history of country music. One of the most influential brother duets in history was the Louvin Brothers.
Charlie Elzer Loudermilk (his birth name is Charlie
, not "Charles") was the second son born to Colonel and Georgiane Loudermilk on July 7, 1927. He grew up as one of seven children in the part of northeastern Alabama known as "Sand Mountain." Before he started school he and his only brother, Ira, began singing together to entertain their parents and five sisters. Other neighbors would come over to hear the boys sing as well, but Charlie recalled that he and Ira were so shy that they would hide under a bed while singing.
Charlie and Ira won a talent contest as teenagers, getting a spot on a 250-watt radio show in nearby Chattanooga. They performed under the name "The Radio Twins," with Ira playing mandolin and Charlie playing the chords his father had taught him on guitar.
Their fledgling career was put on hold because of military service. Ira went into the Army when he turned 18, during the height of World War II; however, an injury to his back during basic training resulted in a medical discharge. Charlie enlisted near the end of World War II and served most of his time in the States.
In 1947 the Louvin Brothers made their first recording, a song Ira wrote about their home state, "Alabama." They would eventually record "Alabama" twice more (once on each of the record labels they appeared on), and the song would eventually become an official state song.
On September 18, 1949, Charlie married his sweetheart, Betty Harrison. He and Ira continued moving across Tennessee, bouncing from one radio station to another performing live gospel music. Some of the shows they did during that time were recorded. Two shows were released by Rounder Records in 1981 on the album Songs That Tell a Story
The brothers were signed by MGM Records and recorded several gospel sides. "The Weapon of Prayer" (which was covered by rock guitarist Mark Knopfler in the late 1980s) earned a good deal of popularity, and it appeared the Louvin Brothers were on their way. However, Charlie found himself drafted yet again, this time for Korea. Even though he had already served, he went back into the Army and was sent to Korea, where he worked as a mail clerk with fellow musician Jesse McReynolds (of Jim and Jesse fame). Charlie protested being drafted twice, and a law was enacted because of his complaints prohibiting servicemen from having to serve another full enlistment. Charlie's service time was combined (as the new law required) and he was promptly discharged to return to his wife, new son, and music career.
Their first recordings on Capitol Records established the Louvin Brothers as important figures in country gospel. They, however, wanted to branch out and do "secular" country songs. The executives at Capitol threatened to dismiss them from the label if their shot at "straight country" failed. Their future was tied to a waltz about lost love. "When I Stop Dreaming," released in 1955, was a major hit and put the Louvin Brothers on the country map.
Throughout their career, the Louvin Brothers alternated performing country songs and gospel tunes (which was not uncommon in the 1950s, as most established stars of that era released a gospel album or two in addition to their "secular" recordings). Their country hits filled the charts: "I Don't Believe You've Met My Baby" (their only #1 hit), "Cash on the Barrel Head," "My Baby's Gone," "Knoxville Girl," and "You're Running Wild" were just a few of their top 40 hits in a two year span of time.
Unfortunately, there were problems. Ira had a volatile temper, which worsened when he drank. Charlie found himself having to do all the driving to shows (since Ira was frequently too drunk to drive), as well as smooth things over with the promoters and fans when Ira's temper got the better of him. The Louvin Brothers, once a top draw, became a risky hire because of Ira's Jeckyll-and-Hyde personality.
In August 1963, following a show in Illinois where they appeared with Ray Price, Ira launched into a tirade and threatened to quit. Charlie called his bluff and agreed to dissolve the act. When the brothers returned to Nashville after the show, Charlie called the Grand Ole Opry and began appearing as a solo performer. Studio time was already booked, so the brothers agreed to record what became their final album, a gospel release titled Thank God for My Christian Home
Charlie stayed in Nashville and quickly became a successful solo artist. In 1964 he released his first solo album, Less and Less and I Don't Love You Anymore
. One of the title songs, "I Don't Love You Anymore," became a major hit and earned Charlie a Grammy nomination for Best New Country Artist of 1964. (The other title song, "Less and Less," was written by the man who beat him out for the award -- Roger Miller.) Charlie enlisted the help of a young mandolin player and songwriter by the name of Tommy Hagen to sing tenor with him on shows.
On June 20, 1965, Charlie was in West Virginia to perform at a show when he received a phone call from his wife, Betty. She had been contacted while in church with the awful news that Charlie's brother and singing partner, Ira, had been killed in a car wreck in Missouri, along with Ira's fourth wife, Anne, and four other people. Charlie performed the show that afternoon, then returned to Nashville and made funeral arrangements for his brother and sister-in-law. A week later, Charlie played at the very same venue where his brother's last show had been held. In 1967, Charlie released a tribute to Ira titled I'll Remember Always
, choosing that name because the first letters of the words spell Ira
Charlie continued to have success on the singles chart with songs such as "Think I'll Go Somewhere and Cry Myself to Sleep," "You Finally Said Something Good (When You Said Goodbye)," "Will You Visit Me on Sundays?," and "Hey Daddy." A number of low-budget movies with country stars were made during this era, and Charlie appeared in The Gold Guitar
. In the early 1970s he teamed up with country singer Melba Montgomery (who had started her career singing duets with George Jones and is best known for the #1 song "No Charge") for a three-year string of charted records including "Something to Brag About" and "Did You Ever."
Although his chart success as a solo artist waned in the 70s, Charlie discovered that there was a major resurgence in interest in Louvin Brothers material, thanks in no small part to country rocker Gram Parsons (who recorded "Cash on the Barrel Head" as a solo artist and "The Christian Life" on the Byrds' ground-breaking album Sweetheart of the Rodeo
) and Emmylou Harris (whose first hit, "If I Could Only Win Your Love," was a Louvin Brothers album track). Charlie was in demand again, not as a solo artist, but as part of the Louvin Brothers. He enlisted the help of tenor singer Charles Whitstein of the Whitstein Brothers, whom Charlie once called "the closest thing to Ira I've ever heard," to help him resurrect the sound of the Louvin Brothers. In 1992, German record company Bear Family released all of the Louvin Brothers' recordings in an eight CD box set titled Close Harmony
Charlie and Betty Louvin opened the Louvin Brothers Museum in 1982. Over the years the museum has been in a number of different locations including the Loudermilk family farm in Henanger and the small town of Bell Buckle, Tennessee. Due to his health he finally closed the museum permanently in the early 2000s.
In June 2010, shortly before his 83rd birthday, Louvin was diagnosed with stage II pancreatic cancer. A Whipple procedure was performed in August but was unsuccessful according to his doctors. Louvin was treated aggressively and by November claimed to be "clean as a whistle" from the cancer. He started to regain some of the 40 pounds he had lost while battling cancer, returned to singing on the Grand Ole Opry (where he had been a member since 1955), and even planned shows for 2011.
By January 2011, however, his health took a dramatic, sudden turn for the worse. He was briefly hospitalized then sent home for his final days. He died at approximately 1 a.m. on January 26, 2011. He was buried in Harpeth Hills Memory Gardens next to his brother.
In Close Harmony: The Story of the Louvin Brothers
by Charles K. Wolfe.
(all inductions are with Ira as the Louvin Brothers)
Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame - 1979
Alabama Music Hall of Fame - 1991
Country Music Hall of Fame - 2001
-- an eight-CD box set featuring all of the Louvin Brothers' recorded output.
Songs That Tell a Story
-- two radio shows of the Louvin Brothers from the early 1950s preserved and released, featuring a number of songs they never recorded commercially.
Live at New River Ranch
-- a live CD featuring instrumentals and comedy from the Louvin Brothers at the peak of their career.
Radio Favorites 51-57
-- separated into "gospel" and "secular" sides, a Country Music Foundation release showcasing the Louvin Brothers on the Grand Ole Opry.
Charlie Louvin Greatest Hits
-- a 2004 release showcasing Charlie's solo career.
-- a 2007 release, Charlie's first recording in ten years, featuring guest appearances by artists as diverse as George Jones and Elvis Costello. One song from the album, "Ira," is a tribute to Charlie's late brother. A video
can be found on You Tube.
ALSO ON TV RAGE: