NPR's Joel Rose reported on Charlie Louvin's passing for All Things Considered. You can hear the radio piece above.
The singer, who was born Charlie Elzer Loudermilk and became well known as one-half of the country and western duo The Louvin Brothers, died Wednesday morning. Louvin, who had continued to perform even as he battled pancreatic cancer, died at home in Wartrace, Tenn. He was 83 years old.
Charlie Louvin was born in Henager, Ala. and began his singing career with his brother Ira. The two sang close harmony, mixing their distinct tenors, and wrote songs together. They became gospel stars with the 1952 song "The Family Who Prays." They wanted to reach a wider, more mainstream audience. In 2003, Charlie Louvin told NPR that he and Ira came up with a song that could reach beyond gospel.
"We chose a song we wrote in the late '40s, 'When I Stop Dreaming,' which would not antagonize anyone, whether they were religious or whether they worked for the devil, you know. And we felt that it wouldn't make our gospel music people mad. And so we tried it and it worked. Thank God, it worked," Louvin said.
The Louvin Brothers landed a spot on the Grand Ol' Opry in 1955 and from then through the early '60s, they had a string of hits that balanced sacred and secular themes, including "I Don't Believe You've Met My Baby" and "The Christian Life." But Ira Louvin apparently wasn't able to live the kind of life that he preached in his songs. He was given to fits of rage in concerts and his drinking caused the brothers to break up in the summer of 1963. They pursued solo careers, though Charlie hoped they'd get back together. Two years later, Ira Louvin was killed in a car accident.
Charlie Louvin went on to have chart hits with his own songs, including "See The Big Man Cry." He continued to perform and — when he was in his late seventies, enjoyed a remarkable comeback. He released an album that featured such guests as George Jones and Jeff Tweedy. He opened for Cake and Cheap Trick and celebrated his 80th birthday by playing Bonnaroo.
Louvin was diagnosed with cancer this summer and underwent surgery to treat it, but a post by his son, Sonny Louvin, indicated that the surgery was not a success, and that alternative treatments would be sought.
In November he released a new album, The Battle Rages On and played shows in New Orleans, St. Louis, Kansas City and Oklahoma City. He had planned to play two shows in Nashville next month.
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MELISSA BLOCK, host:
Country music legend Charlie Louvin has died. He and his brother Ira found success in the 1950s and '60s as the Louvin Brothers. And they were a huge influence on musicians well beyond country music.
NPR's Joel Rose has this appreciation.
JOEL ROSE: Before their close harmonies influenced The Everly Brothers, The Birds or anyone else, The Louvin Brothers were a gospel act.
(Soundbite of song, "The Family Who Prays")
THE LOUVIN BROTHERS (Musicians): (Singing) The family who prays will never be parted. Their circle in heaven unbroken shall stand.
ROSE: Charlie Louvin told WHYY's FRESH AIR in 2003 that the brothers' vocal style came easily.
(Soundbite of archived interview)
Mr. CHARLIE LOUVIN (Country Music Singer): Us being raised together, if it was obvious that the song was going to get too high for me to sing in a certain place, my brother just automatically take that high lead, and I would do the low harmony. We didn't have to step on each other's foot or wink or bump shoulders to do this. It was just something that you knew was going to happen.
ROSE: Charlie and Ira Loudermilk were born in Alabama.
Country music historian Nolan Porterfield says they drew on the music of their church and on an earlier generation of duet singing.
Mr. NOLAN PORTERFIELD (Country Music Historian): They took from here and there and yon and came up with this just beautiful vocal sound, this harmony. In my estimation, it's never been equaled.
ROSE: While The Louvin Brothers never gave up gospel music, they found their greatest success when they crossed over into mainstream country in 1955.
(Soundbite of song, "When I Stop Dreaming")
THE LOUVIN BROTHERS: (Singing) When I stop dreaming, that's when I'll stop loving you.
ROSE: But gradually, Ira Louvin's drinking and temper drove the brothers apart. They broke up in 1963. And two years later, Ira was killed in a car crash.
Charlie Louvin had some hits on his own, but in the late 1960s, Gram Parsons introduced The Louvin Brothers' music to The Birds and a new generation of fans.
Mr. MARTY STUART (Country Music Singer): He was like one of those Old Testament figures to me. Their songs just almost felt like as if they came out of the hymnbooks, even the country ones.
ROSE: Country singer Marty Stuart played mandolin on Louvin's 2007 comeback album.
Mr. STUART: Just singing alongside him, I went, boy, it is deep in there. He has nuances and he understands the lyrics, and he understands where to put the emotion on top of the lyrics, so he was a master.
ROSE: Even into his 80s, Charlie Louvin kept performing for younger audiences in rock clubs and at the Bonnaroo Music Festival. But for all the shows he played without Ira by his side, Charlie Louvin said he always expected his brother to join him on the choruses.
Mr. LOUVIN: When it comes time for the harmonies to come in, I will move to my left because my brother and I always just use one microphone. And so you had to share the mic. And I - even today, I will move over to the left to give the harmony room. And I know in my mind that there's no harmony standing on my right, but it's just old habits are hard to break.
(Soundbite of song, "Ira")
Mr. LOUVIN: (Singing) Ira, I still hear you off in the distance, your sweet harmony.
ROSE: Charlie Louvin died this morning of complications from pancreatic cancer. He was 83 years old.
Joel Rose, NPR News, New York.
(Soundbite of song, "Ira")
Mr. LOUVIN: (Singing) There will never be another, because you can't beat family. I know you're up there singing with the angels. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.