Picture of the Louvin Brothers dancing with The Devil The Louvin Brothers, Charlie (1927-2011) and Ira Louvin (1924-1965) were the missing link between the haunting, somber harmonies of Depression-era "brother acts" such as the Blue Sky Boys or the Delmore Brothers, and the joyous release of rock and roll's Everlys. During their heyday in the 1950s, the Louvins recorded over a dozen albums full of glorious gospel and country pop, mainly produced by Capitol's Ken Nelson. The brothers scored several Top Ten country hits, and were one of the few country acts to weather out the commercial challenge of early rock and roll. Songs such as "I Don't Believe You've Met My Baby" and "Don't Laugh" pull the listener along to soaring heights, propelled by beautifully close harmonies, and older brother Ira's driving mandolin. Few things sound as sweet as the Louvin Brothers -- chances are that once you've checked them out, you'll become a lifelong fan.

Although the Louvins were one of the fortunate few country acts not crippled by the popularity of early rockabilly and rock and roll, by the late 1950s the hits were fewer and farther between. Their early '60s recordings often had a gimmicky, rock-pop flavor -- songs like "The Stagger" sound mildly desperate, though they still exude great charm. Although their best-known material was recorded between 1955-1959, in the years leading up to their 1963 breakup, Charlie and Ira wrote some of the sweetest, most accomplished songs of their career.

The Louvin Brothers disbanded in 1963 after years of slackening sales figures and simmering personality conflicts. Ira, who was the main songwriter (and in many ways was the greater talent of the two), was also an abusive, irritable alcoholic. Level-headed Charlie, who had kept the business side of their act running for many years, did quite well in his solo career. He scored a Top Ten hit in 1964, and continued to chart consistently throughout the decade. The erratic, troubled Ira managed to record one solo album in 1965, but later that year the Louvin Brothers story ended tragically when Ira died in a car crash while touring the Midwest. Charlie continued on, and produced several solo albums for Capitol, including some duet albums with Melba Montgomery. Eventually he coasted into indie territory, recording for smaller independent labels, while performing and touring right up until his death in 2011.

Since the late 1960s, the Louvin Brothers' music has been revived and recorded by many great artists. Hippie-billy legend Gram Parsons was probably the most important Louvin Brothers acolyte: although he only covered a few of their songs, it was Parsons who turned his protege, Emmylou Harris, onto their stuff. Emmylou, in turn, has been one of their best and most persistent interpreters. Perhaps the most obsessive Louvins aficianados are the Whitstein Brothers, whose albums on Rounder Records are practically carbon copies of the Louvins' sound. Other than Emmylou Harris, I'd say my favorite interpretations of the Louvin Brothers have been by Ricky Barnes and the Hoot Owls -- no self-respecting Louvins tribute record would be complete without Ricky's versions of "I Take The Chance," "Once A Day" and "Don't Laugh."

Best-Of Collections | Original Albums | Solo Albums

The Louvin Brothers "When I Stop Dreaming" (Razor & Tie, 1995)
HIGHLY recommended. This is probably the best single-disc introduction to the Louvin Brothers music available today. It has two dozen great songs on it, balancing gospel and heart songs almost evenly, although it stops short of including their later pop-rock experimentation. Plenty of stuff to get all worked up about here, including singalong favorites like "Don't Laugh" and "I Don't Believe You've Met My Baby." The earlier Collectors Series disc that Capitol put out in 1990 is comparable, but sadly is out of print. My only complaint about this disc is that the 1961 remake of "Great Atomic Power" ain't nearly as great as the '50s original.

The Louvin Brothers "Radio Favorites: '51-'57" (Country Music Foundation, 1987)
Sublime live renditions of their best material. These guys were so smooth that you can hardly believe these tracks come from live radio and stage shows, if it weren't for the occasional loud whoops and hollers when they finish. Includes the sublime gospel number, "Just Rehearsing," which doesn't often appear on disc. Another great release by the CMF. Yes! Yes! Yes!

The Louvin Brothers "Live At New River Ranch" (Copper Creek, 1996)
Another excellent opportunity to hear the Louvins play live. Smooth, sweet, professional, and intensely heartfelt, and with considerable overlap from the Radio Favorites collection. Take your pick: they both rock. Either way, their version of "Just Rehearsing" is soooo much fun... Great stuff... highly recommended!

The Louvin Brothers "In Close Harmony" (Box set) (Bear Family, 1993)
Holy cow!! Eight CDs worth of the Louvin Brothers -- a country music Holy Grail if ever there was one. This collection contains all of their studio recordings, including sessions from Capitol, MGM and Decca -- 169 songs total. I used to lust after this treasure chest, but eventually decided it was just too much, and that I was more likely to listen to the records I already owned than to crack open this imposing monument. The LP-sized box also contains a big, fat booklet and discography -- the early version of Charles K. Wolfe's biography of the Louvins.

The Louvin Brothers "Songs That Tell A Story" (Rounder, 1981)
Older, more traditionally-oriented material (gospel tunes, country death songs, etc...) taken from radio transcription discs and the like. Great stuff, though you have to be in the right mood.

The Louvin Brothers "Sing Their Hearts Out" (See For Miles, 1989)
A charming collection of the Louvins' later, poppier material -- taken mainly from their last few Capitol albums, 1961-1963. Snooty purists might think this stuff is too kitschy and gimmicky, but fans should love it. Besides, along with the would-be teenpop tracks, there are some beautiful ballads such as "Everytime You Leave" and "New Partner Waltz." I haven't seen this out on CD, but the LP sure is a treasure.

The Louvin Brothers "Early Rare Recordings" (Anthology of Country Music)
An early 1980s (?) bootleg LP from back when no Louvin material was in print. This isn't as sketchy as you might imagine, and the music is solid early-50s material, with plenty of gospel and traditional tunes, as well as a couple of Christmas tunes and a Korean War patriotism anthem...

The Louvin Brothers "Christmas With The Louvin Brothers" (Razor & Tie, 1997)
Corny and heartfelt... how could you not love this stuff? Charlie and Ira Louvin were two of country music's greatest gospel singers, and this is one of their more heartfelt religious albums. They also recorded plenty of great secular heartsongs, but records like this had a special nostalgic resonance. Great reissue of their original album, with a couple of extra goodies thrown in for good measure. Recommended!!

The Louvin Brothers "The Essential Louvin Brothers -- My Baby's Gone: 1955-1964" (Raven, 2006)

Charlie Louvin "The Greatest Hits Of Charlie Louvin" (Collector's Choice, 2004)
At last...! A long-overdue retrospective of solo material by hard-workin' Charlie Louvin, the surviving member of the oh-so-sublime Louvin Brothers duo. After the long-lived brother act went bust in the early '60s (largely due to personal differences between level-headed Charlie and his more reckless sibling), each went their separate way and started a solo career. After Ira passed away in 1965, Charlie soldiered on, and had a remarkably successful career, starting off with a #4 hit in 1964, "I Don't Love You Anymore," and 1965's heartwrenching weeper, "See The Big Man Cry," about a divorced daddy who's kid sees him, but doesn't know who he is. Although he got stuck with a lot of repetitive "theme" songs (centered around the "more" vs "less" twist of his initial hit), Charlie still had a pretty good run in the Top 40, right up through the mid-1970s. This disc captures Charlie Louvin's down-to-earth, gosh-heck appeal, and while there are some songs that are missing (and a too-skimpy offering of his early-'70s duets with Melba Montgomery), this is still a mighty fine record, and is bound to be a real treat for fans who've been waiting decades to see many of these songs back in print in any format... Snap this up while you still can.

Ira Louvin "The Complete Recordings Of Ira Louvin" (King/Capitol Special Markets, 2000)
A fab reissue of Ira's lone, long out-of-print 1965 solo album, The Unforgettable Ira Louvin, which was released after Ira and his wife Anne died in a car crash... Many of these songs were originally released as singles, as Ira was taking tentative steps to establish a post-duo career. As such, the album doesn't feel all that cohesive, and the material is markedly different than the Louvin Brothers "sound" we know and love so well... it's less punchy, a bit dark, less pop and more honkytonk. To be honest, it ain't all gold, but it's still pretty nice, and Ira was still a great songwriter. There are several standout tunes, in particular "Who Throwed Dat Rock?", which was later ably covered by High Sheriff Ricky Barnes. This CD reissue is particularly noteworthy for the inclusion of three previously unreleased tracks, all of very high caliber and well worth tracking down. This disc is a major triumph of the CD reissue era, and a must for all Louvins fans...


Jim And Jesse "Saluting The Louvin Brothers" (Columbia) (LP)
Back in the early 1950s, this bluegrass brother act were one of the Louvin's few serious competitors in the sweet harmony arena... So it's fitting that later on they would do a Louvins tribute. Includes all the big hits, such as "I Don't Believe You've Met My Baby," "When I Stop Dreaming," Knoxville Girl," "I'm Hoping That You're Hoping," etc.

The Whitstine Brothers "Sing Gospel Songs Of The Louvins" (Rounder, 1993)

Various Artists "SONGS OF THE LOUVIN BROTHERS" (Rounder Easydisc, 1997)
The usual cast of contemporary Rounder artists pay tribute to the Louvins. This is a cheapie budget-line compilation, pulled off of various Rounder albums, but it's quite nice. With folks like Del McCoury and Ricky Skaggs on it, it oughta be. Be great to have a more comprehensive tribute album out some day, somewhere.

Various Artists "LIVIN', LOVIN', LOSIN' -- SONGS OF THE LOUVIN BROTHERS" (Universal South, 2003)
The heartsongs and gospel anthems written by Charlie and Ira Louvin stand the test of time, as heard on this fine tribute album, which features many of modern-day Nashville's more traditionally-minded musicians. Patty Loveless, Rebecca Lynn Howard, Joe Nichols, Pam Tillis and Dierks Bentley join old-guard torchbearers such as Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell, Dolly Parton and Vince Gill, as well as bluegrassers Rhonda Vincent, Larry Cordle, Del McCoury and Alison Krauss, all singin' their little hearts out on these fine, heartbreaking ballads. Carl Jackson organized the album, and he and his pals act as house band on many of the tracks -- this is an wholly successful project, one of the finest tribute discs to come out of Nashville in many, many years. The talent assembled is certainly up to the task, and Louvins fans will not be disappointed by any aspect of this record... Highlights include Merle Haggard's forlorn version of "Must You Throw Dirt In My Face" and the late Johnny Cash doing the recitation on "Keep Your Eyes On Jesus," one of three gospel tunes that close the album out. When it comes to the Louvins, I'm a bit of a snob, but this disc was definitely up to snuff. Recommended!

Books And Other Resources

"In Close Harmony"
by Charles K. Wolfe
(University of Mississippi Press, 1996)

This is the single best book on the Louvins, and is largely an expanded version of the liner notes to the Bear Family box set. Admittedly, Wolfe's prose suffers from music writer-itis, and gets a bit datum-heavy, sometimes at the expense of narrative flow. But it's still an authoritative work -- rather, the authoritative work -- on the Louvins, and it gives a good look at the interpersonal strife behind the bright facade of their beautiful music.

  • For a more complete online history of the Louvin Brothers, check out this essay on the Alabama Music Hall of Fame site, which also has information on several other worthy artists.

  • Killing The Buddha is a rather unusual website, devoted to esoteric and nontraditional spirituality. Their article, "High Lonesome Theology" examines the Louvin Brothers' gospel side, and though it gets a bit muddled towards the end, is worth checking out. The author does a nice job taking Ira and Charlie's religiousity at face value, rather than as kitsch, which, I agree, is a mistake that modern-day Louvin fans make all too often.

  • Charlie Louvin apparently has a home page, though I wasn't able to open this link when I came across it. Perhaps you'll have better luck...?

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