Classic Country: the Louvin Brothers
A new memoir takes us backstage with the Louvin Brothers
There is Country Music One—traditional. And there is Country Music Two—modern.
Many fans of Country Music One (a few may be fans of Country Music Two) have spent hours listening to the Carter Family and Hank Williams and the Louvin Brothers, musicians who flourished prior to the ’60s. These fans are drawn to sentimental (but solid) and undressed lyrics, rock-bottom sin and salvation gospel songs, simple accompaniment, instrumental music, and tunes like “Knoxville Girl”—a version of an ancient English ballad. Serious CM One fans are familiar with Ira Louvin’s mandolin playing (and know that in 1958 a record producer discouraged him from playing it so that his and Charlie’s music would be more digestible by CM Two fans).
Because tastes in music are so variable, there is no end to adversarial comparisons between One and Two. (Unfortunately, some people, turned off by modern country music, are unaware of the richness of traditional country.) What seems clear is that at some point in the mid- to late ’50s, rock and roll and electric instruments began taking a toll on the purity of what came before, leading Charlie Louvin, the author, along with Benjamin Whitmer, of Satan Is Real: The Ballad of the Louvin Brothers (Igniter), to say, “Country music ain’t country music now.”
“The purity of what came before”—applied to any art—sounds so familiar we tend to discount it. But if we tune in the Carter Family and Hank Williams and the Louvin Brothers while we unharden ourselves (the more “intellectual” among us, that is) to the power, sincerity, and intensity of gospel music lyrics, melodies, and harmonies, we just might find ourselves open to a simplicity and directness that can help us live right.