18 March 2011

Charlie and Ira Louvin

The Louvin Brothers enjoyed success, but fell short of superstardom. Their old-school country was subsumed by the first wave of rock'n'roll--although Elvis Presley idolized the Louvins, and took them on tour--and then by the riotous cultural upheavals of the 1960s. A greater impediment was the gathering volatility of Ira Louvin. Speaking to Uncut, Charlie sighingly confirmed that every legend about Ira's volcanic temper, artistic caprice, alcoholic excess and romantic recklessness is regrettably true. "There's only a millimetre difference between an idiot and a genius," said Charlie.

He blamed Ira, though with no hint of bitterness, for depriving them of what might have been a career-transforming moment: an Elvis Presley version of one of their songs. Ira fought with Elvis' manager, Colonel Tom Parker, told Elvis his music was "trash," and sneered to the King's face that he was "a white nigger." "My brother," said Charlie, in a prize-winning understatement, "was way too outspoken."

The Louvin Brothers couldn't go on like that, and didn't. In his early eighties, Charlie still remembered the date and place precisely. "Every time we'd go on tour, Ira would say, 'This is it, I'm getting out of this rotten business,' and he'd say to me, "I don't know what you'll do, maybe you can get your job at the service station back.' I just heard this so many times, and then on August 18, 1963, in Watseka, illinois, I said on the way home--of course, I did 95 per cent of the driving--'this time, you're right. This will be the last show."

To the regret of many and the surprise of few, Ira Louvin died young, just 41, in 1965. Of all the fates he tempted, it was a car accident that claimed him, along with his fourth wife, not long after his third wife had shot him five times during a domestic dispute (and subsequently informed reporters waiting at the hospital that "If the son of a bitch don't die, I'll shoot him again.")

from "When You Listen To The Louvins, You Hear The Deep, Haunted South," Uncut magazine, April 2011