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The History And Growing Influence Of The NRA
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
The shootings in Tucson reopened debate on one of the most contentious
issues in American politics: gun control. My guest, Robert Spitzer, is
the author of the book "The Politics of Gun Control," which is now in
its fourth edition. A fifth is on the way. It's published by the
Congressional Quarterly Press.
The book includes a history of the NRA, an examination of historical and
current interpretations of the Second Amendment and a history of gun
control law. Spitzer is the distinguished service professor of political
science at the State University of New York College at Cortland.
In an attempt to find bipartisan support for tightening restrictions on
selling guns to people who are mentally ill, the Obama administration
scheduled a closed-door meeting with staffers from the House Judiciary
Robert Spitzer says that, in the wake of the Tucson shootings, improving
recordkeeping to block sales to the mentally ill stands a chance of
moving forward, but he thinks we're unlikely to see any other gun laws
tighten. Tucson, he says, is unlikely to be a real game-changer.
Mr. ROBERT SPITZER (Author, "The Politics of Gun Control"): Similar
events in the past have changed the calculus of how the government has
responded to gun violence, but the political atmospherics of the first
decade of the 20th century very much run against the idea that there
will be any significant change in federal, or probably state gun laws,
as a result of the Tucson shooting, even though there are some clear
public policy changes that could be made that have or will be introduced
into Congress soon and that most people seem to agree with.
GROSS: I think it's fair to say that America kind of went into shock
after the Tucson shootings. But what has the NRA's response been?
Mr. SPITZER: Well, the NRA's response to the Tucson shootings has been
to say as little as possible and to keep its head down. They are the
organization that is most closely identified with gun rights, with the
advancement of gun rights, with resisting efforts to enact stronger gun
And by the same token, they've done very, very well politically, so
they're in a position right now where there isn't any need for them to
be very vocal, publicly, or to draw attention to themselves.
And their approach even more I think than in past, similar shooting
incidents, has been simply to say as little as possible, to simply issue
a statement of condolence to the families of those who were injured or
killed, and to wait for the political storm to pass over and then to
pick up politics as usual.
GROSS: And I think to say, too, that the problem in Tucson was the fault
of the mental health care industry, as opposed to guns.
Mr. SPITZER: Well, there is also an effort to turn focus away to areas
other than guns to explain whatever it is that happens, focusing, for
example, on violent video games, on images of violence in the media, on
the mental health community, on laws relating to how people are judged
Part of the strategy is, indeed, to turn attention to those kinds of
questions, especially, of course, the mental health question because it
pertained directly to Jared Loughner, the accused Tucson shooter. And
that's a further way to turn attention away from gun control laws and
GROSS: But while we're on the subject of mental health, what are some of
the problems now, in preventing somebody who has a serious mental health
problem, which it's likely the shooter Jared Loughner has, to prevent
them from getting guns?
Mr. SPITZER: Well, there are two basic sets of problems, I think. One is
that mental health information is gathered on a state-by-state basis,
and state practices vary widely.
So in the state of Arizona, Jared Loughner did not need to get a permit
at all to get a handgun, and the only real requirement he had to fulfill
was the federal requirement of a background check, through the federal
provision enacted as the Brady Law back in 1993.
His name was not already on a list in the federal databank, so his name
was not rejected for the handgun purchase he made last November - even
though it was clear that he had mental problems. Nobody in his family or
the college where he had been attending had actually taken formal steps,
nor the local police, to actually, you know, get a judge to say this man
is mentally incompetent and should undergo treatment. And that's a
complicated subject matter in and of itself.
But I would also make the comparison between a state like Arizona and a
state like New York state. In New York state, when citizens apply for a
pistol permit, in order to then purchase a gun, a handgun, legally, the
state of New York asks for quite a bit more information.
They ask for four character references, and the permit applicant needs
to, among other things, go before a local judge and say this is why I
would like to have a handgun before they can get the okay to do it.
And in that more lengthy and detailed process, including the process of
interviewing or consulting with character references, had Mr. Loughner
lived in New York state, it's abundantly clear that he would not have
been able to get a permit.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Robert Spitzer. He's the
author of the book "The Politics of Gun Control," and he's a
distinguished service professor of political science at the State
University of New York at Cortland.
Let's look at the Second Amendment, which is so highly contested, you
know, the interpretation of the Second Amendment, a well-regulated
militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of
the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.
What did a well-regulated militia mean at the time the amendment was
Mr. SPITZER: Well, the meaning of well-regulated militia was pretty
well-understood. The sort of military backbone of the nation in the late
1700s, during the American Revolution and after the American Revolution,
was seen to be the militia.
There was a standing professional army after the Revolution, but it was
very small. The federal government had few resources to fund a large
army, and the territory of America was very vast at the time, and the
nation faced many military threats from Native Americans, from the
French, from the British, from others.
And so the militia was seen as the key military bulwark that could be
organized to confront military emergencies anywhere around the country,
but it was very much functioned, and had to function, through state and
You wanted uniformity in that process. You wanted the government to
provide what resources it could, to provide military order, to provide
regulations, and so that was what the whole basis of the militia process
I would simply add, though, that militarily speaking, militias were,
generally speaking, ineffective. We got through the Revolutionary War,
as much despite the militias, as because of the militias, as George
Washington, commander-in-chief, said on many occasions. And militarily,
eventually, we abandoned that old militia system.
GROSS: But the well-regulated militia meant that the militia was serving
under state or federal control.
Mr. SPITZER: The phrase well-regulated militia was widely understood to
mean control by the government, whether federal government or state.
GROSS: Now, the Second Amendment has become so controversial. Does it
mean you can carry guns only if you're in a well-regulated militia, or
does it give individuals the right to bear arms, militia or not? And was
it always that controversial?
Mr. SPITZER: The Second Amendment in early times was not controversial
in the way it is today. It really had become politicized in the 20th
century, and we saw the emergence of this debate about whether the
Second Amendment protects only militia service or whether it also, or
instead, protects a personal right to have guns. And that's become a
debate, in legal circles and political circles, very politicized.
As a matter of history, we didn't really see anything like the
individual point of view emerge until the 19th century. That doesn't
mean that Americans didn't own guns or didn't think that gun ownership
was a good thing. Of course they did.
But the chief purpose that is cited for the individual ownership of guns
is personal self-protection, from predators, from, you know, criminals,
or in colonial times, from marauding Indians or, you know, whatever
threats might arise.
But you didn't need the Second Amendment to ensure that civilians would
have the right to defend themselves or to use a gun to defend
themselves, because the principle of personal self-defense is one that
goes back hundreds of years. It's in the common law. It's in the British
legal tradition, and that was well-established long before we had the
GROSS: So at point during the 20th century, does the interpretation of
the Second Amendment start to become very controversial?
Mr. SPITZER: The emphasis on the Second Amendment as protecting gun
rights really escalates in the 1970s, in the aftermath of Congress'
enactment of the Gun Control Act of 1968.
Members of the - representatives from the NRA testified before Congress
when Congress held hearings on what became the Gun Control Act of 1968,
but the chief emphasis was not on the Second Amendment. It had more to
do with how best to control crime and the other sort of behavioral
problems associated with guns that were - on which the public focused
great attention because of the assassinations of Robert Kennedy, John F.
Kennedy and Martin Luther King.
But in the 1970s, you see the Second Amendment rhetoric escalate
dramatically as an argument against stronger gun laws and to identify
gun ownership with American values and historical values.
And so you find this increasingly heavy emphasis on Second Amendment
rights and constitutional rhetoric as part of the argument against
enacting stronger gun laws.
GROSS: Now, does that coincide with the increasing power of the NRA? I
mean, the NRA starts in the 1800s as a group to help people improve
their marksmanship. It wasn't a political lobbying group.
Mr. SPITZER: Yeah, that's exactly right. The NRA was formed in 1871 by
two Civil War veterans who observed, during the Civil War, that the
typical American male didn't know one end of a gun from the other. And
that also contradicts the historical mythology about every, you know,
every American man being able to use a gun effectively and owning one,
because that was not the case.
So the main focus was on marksmanship skills. Later on, hunting and
sporting uses became more of the focus of the NRA. And it really only
became a heavily politicized group in the 1970s.
In fact, there's really a pivotal moment in 1977, when the NRA held its
annual convention in Cincinnati where a faction of the NRA, a more
politically conscious and more ideologically extreme element of the NRA,
captures control of the organization.
Partly, they're dismayed because the old guard that had controlled the
NRA talked about moving the NRA's headquarters from Washington, D.C., to
Colorado. And to the political faction, this would have been a terrible
And they win control of the NRA, and you see two things. You see it
spending a lot more of its resources on political activities after this
time, and you see much hotter and more extremist political rhetoric
coming from the NRA, really climaxing in the early 1990s.
And they've toned down the rhetoric in recent years, but, of course,
they're still extremely heavily invested in the political process.
GROSS: How much of the use of the Second Amendment in the gun debate
comes from the NRA? In other words, was it the NRA that started relying
on the Second Amendment as justification to carry guns and to oppose gun
Mr. SPITZER: Well, the NRA certainly led the charge, the political
rhetorical charge, to identify what they do with the Second Amendment
and gun ownership as a key and core American value. But this also was
something that found great resonance in the gun community, and it was
very much an approach that already had - that already had much sympathy
among gun owners, gun users and also among the sort of rising, more
alienated, more arch-conservative, more anti-government elements within
society who view government with profound suspicion, who believe that
they need to own guns to thwart American governmental tyranny in some
manner, and that a day might come where American citizens will need to
somehow rise up against their government, and with force of violence and
use of guns, restore American democracy from what they view as some kind
of coming governmental tyranny.
GROSS: Has the NRA said that you may need arms to protect yourself
against government tyranny? Have their said that in their own
Mr. SPITZER: The NRA has said, often, and made various kinds of
statements that - stated in fairly general terms for reasons that are
not too hard to discern - but saying that, yes, that citizens need to
own government - citizens need to own guns so that citizen gun ownership
can serve as kind of this bulwark against the onset of governmental
And that rhetoric is something of - is dangerous because there is an
American tradition of violence against government based on - by citizens
based on the belief that the government is tyrannical, is going to
become tyrannical. And it's a very delicate line that they walk, partly
because if you examine what that means, using force against the
government, does that mean capturing and assassinating members of the
Supreme Court, of the president, of members of Congress? I mean, that's
what the use of violence and guns means.
GROSS: So this kind of rhetoric made its way into the election in 2010,
when Sharron Angle, who was running against Harry Reid for his Senate
seat in Nevada, said that we might have to use Second Amendment
remedies. Were you surprised to hear that kind of rhetoric in a
Mr. SPITZER: I was not surprised, but I also found it shocking. That is,
we have heard others running for office, and occasionally office-
holders, use this kind of incendiary language referencing the Second
Amendment and kind of tying it, somehow, to actually using guns against
- in the political process.
But to hear it from the nominee of a major political party running for
the United States Senate, which is a very prominent race, I did find it,
frankly, somewhat shocking, even though we've heard that kind of
rhetoric in the past - precisely because its meaning is clear. Its
meaning means if don't get my way, I'm reserving to myself, the right to
pick up a gun and see that I get my way in the political realm.
And that brings together the intersection of politics and armed
violence, and that is deeply troubling.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Robert Spitzer. He's the
author of the book "The Politics of Gun Control." And he's a professor
of political science at the State University of New York at Cortland.
Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is
(Soundbite of music)
If you're just joining us, my guest is Robert Spitzer. He's the author
of the book "The Politics of Gun Control." And he's a professor of
political science at the State University of New York at Cortland.
So you've written about how, until recently, until 2008, the Supreme
Court basically interpreted the Second Amendment as meaning, as applying
to militias. And it didn't rule out carrying guns, but it didn't also -
but also it didn't rule out gun control regulation. But it said that the
Second Amendment basically applied - was speaking directly to well-
But that changed in 2008, in the case Washington, D.C., versus Heller.
And what was the ruling there? What was the interpretation of the Second
Mr. SPITZER: The District of Columbia versus Heller case from 2008 was a
very important case. It marked a very significant change in
interpretation of the Second Amendment.
And in the majority decision, authored by Antonin Scalia, he said, or
the majority concluded, that the Second Amendment, the right to bear
arms, now protected an individual right of citizens to own handguns for
personal self-defense in the home.
That represented a departure from how the Second Amendment had been
interpreted by the Supreme Court in the past and by many lower federal
court decisions, all of which had supported a militia-based
interpretation, meaning that Second Amendment pertained to gun ownership
by citizens but only in connection with their service in a government-
organized and regulated militia.
So under the individualist view, there is now this personal right to
guns, although the court majority went to great pains to say that most
existing gun laws would be fine, that it would not lead to the wholesale
striking down of gun laws around the country.
So, for example, laws that said criminals can't have guns, mentally
imbalanced people cannot have guns, perfectly fine, laws barring the
carrying of guns into government buildings, into schools, perfectly
fine, laws pertaining to sale of weapons and perhaps pertaining to the
sale of exotic, very destructive weapons, those probably could remain in
So it changed the legal definition, but the court also did not want to
be in a position of opening the floodgates to striking down, willy-
nilly, gun laws around the country, and that caution is also reflected
in the decision.
GROSS: I think a lot of people found it surprising that justices who
describe themselves as wanting to adhere as closely as possible to the
original intent of the Constitution, the original intent of the founding
fathers, had such a broad interpretation of the Second Amendment, which
talks about a well-regulated militia.
Mr. SPITZER: Well, there is a furious debate about what the original
intent regarding the Second Amendment is. The consensus of historians
and constitutional scholars is that the Second Amendment was a militia-
Indeed, all of the direct evidence about what the Second Amendment
meant, especially from the fist Congress of 1789, which is when the
Second Amendment was drafted, edited, et cetera, focused exclusively on
There was nothing, nothing in the debates or in that sort of
environment, that talked about anything resembling an individual
interpretation. And indeed, historians have been harshly critical of the
Heller majority opinion because it is extensively historical, and much
of the text, most of the text of the majority opinion, focuses on this
kind of history. But it's not considered to be an accurate reading of
history. And even though it claims and originalist provenance, it's
originalism as a matter of history is really not very good. And indeed,
that was much of the critique of the dissenting opinion in the Heller
case. Saying look, you got the history wrong. It was designed to be a
militia-based right and that you can't pretend otherwise. And indeed, I
think the lesson is that even though the Supreme Court can change the
law, it cannot change history.
GROSS: My guest, Robert Spitzer, will be back in the second half of the
show. He's the author of "The Politics of Gun Control." I'm Terry Gross,
and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Iâm Terry Gross. Letâs get back to our
interview with Robert Spitzer, author of âThe Politics of Gun Control,â
which is published by the Congressional Quarterly Press.â He also wrote
âThe Right to Bear Armsâ and âThe Presidency and the Constitution.â Heâs
the distinguished service professor of political science at the State
University of New York College at Cortland.
So we've been talking about the NRA. Now I know youâre a member of the
NRA and youâre a member of the gun control group the Brady Center. I
assume you're a member of both so that you can get their literature and
see what they're saying to their base, not just what they're saying in
public speeches, yes?
Prof. SPITZER: Yes, that is right. It's interesting from my point of
view to be a member of both organizations, to get their literature, and
also I explain it to my students in the classroom and they find that
GROSS: So what are some of the things you've learned about the NRA's
approach to raising money or mobilizing the base from getting its
Prof. SPITZER: Well, the NRA, like many organizations, relies a great
deal on very alarmist extremist rhetoric to constantly enforce and
reinforce the impression that they are constantly besieged, that they
are constantly under attack and that they are on the verge of losing the
great victories that they have won in the past. And that kind of
alarmist rhetoric is very important because that how you mobilize your
During the 2000s, when the NRA's influence in Washington and in the
White House was unparalleled, their literature, their letters to
members, their publications, continued to talk about the dire threats
posed to their organization, posed to their ideals by various
politicians in Washington. And increasingly, they've demonized the
United Nations as an organization that was poised to somehow eliminate
the Second Amendment or Second Amendment rights, or gun rights, from
American citizens. And the NRA politically has also become more involved
in the United Nations to try and influence gun policy there and in other
GROSS: So whatâs the rhetoric like? Can you quote some things that you
Prof. SPITZER: The NRA rhetoric, at times, has caused a national stir.
Probably the most well-known instance was in the early 1990s and late
1980s when the NRA went out of its way to demonize the federal agency
that regulates guns, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, referring
to its agents as jackbooted thugs and comparing them to Hitler. And
shortly after that period of time was when the attack on the federal
office building in Oklahoma City occurred in several ATF agents were
killed in that attack. And that kind of brought halt, screeching halt to
some of the rhetoric that they had aimed specifically at the government
because it was so stridently anti-government, that there was a feeling
that perhaps it had contributed to the atmosphere - political atmosphere
- amongst some extremists that gee, really, it's okay to attack
government officials. And former president George Bush the 1st, and
former President Ronald Reagan, both of whom were life NRA members,
publicly criticized the NRA for that really excessive and heated
rhetoric. And they backed away from that to some degree thereafter.
GROSS: Well, President George H.W. Bush resigned from the NRA after
Prof. SPITZER: He did.
GROSS: Resigned is the wrong word. He stopped being a member.
Prof. SPITZER: Yeah.
(Soundbite of clearing throat)
Prof. SPITZER: He canceled his life membership in the NRA because
indeed, a couple of the agents â eight government agents â who died in
the Oklahoma City bombing, were people that he knew and he was indeed
outraged by the NRA's relentless attacks on the ATF.
GROSS: So you get the literature from the Brady Center, a gun control
group. What's its rhetoric like to you, its membership?
Prof. SPITZER: Well, the Brady Center certainly uses rhetoric that can
be pretty alarmist at times as well, talking about gun shootings, for
example, about how loose gun laws have led to many of the problems that
we see, relating it to gun violence. And, it too tries to rally its
members by getting them to the barricades to fight for whatever the
cause of the moment happens to be. It doesn't quite meet the NRA's level
of rhetoric but the Brady and other program control groups face a
similar political dynamic, which is to fight indifference and to get
members to join to get people to participate, and heated rhetoric is the
typical way that you do that.
And, of course, that is key to events in the news as well. So when there
is a shooting they certainly would send out literature saying, you know,
here's something terrible thatâs happened and letâs renew our effort to
strengthen gun laws. So, just as the actions of the NRA are keyed to the
political cycle and the events of the moment, so too in a mirror image
are the actions of the Brady group.
GROSS: Have you gotten mailings from either the Brady Group or the NRA
since the Tucson shooting?
Prof. SPITZER: There had been special mailings since the Tucson shooting
from the Brady coalition. I've not seen anything from the NRA.
GROSS: Which direction has the law been drifting in, toward more gun
control or more gun access?
Prof. SPITZER: The law at the national level has been drifting away from
stricter gun laws, I'd say, since the early 1990s. The high water point
for gun control supporters was certainly the Brady Law in 1993 and the
assault weapons ban in 1994. Since that time, federal law has both
Congress enacted law and court decisions have moved in the other
direction of fewer restrictions. That process has been more dramatic at
the state level, where we've seen the rapid spread of for example
liberalized concealed carry laws.
In 1988, there were about 18 states that had state laws that made it
pretty easy for civilians to carry concealed hand guns around in
society. By now, by 2011, that number is up to 39 or 40 states having
liberalized laws, depending on how you count it, and the NRA has worked
very diligently and other gun rights groups, at the state level, to win
political victories there. And they've really been quite successful.
Another element of that has been the spread of the so-called open carry
movement, where it's been a more grassroots activity, one that the NRA
has not been so happy about, where gun rights groups have been taking
advantage of state laws that allow people to carry guns openly, that is
openly displayed so that you can see that the person has a gun, that's
met with some skepticism among citizens and some concern but that
movement has also taken off as well.
GROSS: Why has the NRA chosen not to back that movement?
Prof. SPITZER: They're concerned about public reaction. And the
prevailing public reaction of seeing civilians carrying guns openly
strapped to their hips, generally speaking, is one of dismay. And the
NRA is concerned about these image questions, about how these actions
will be seen, because it may be viewed as the action of gun nuts. And
part of the NRA's political effort has been to not be depicted as the
champion for, you know - for nutty people with guns but for people who
are sober, responsible and careful about guns, and gun use. And that
image issue, I think, runs afoul of the idea of American civilians in
the 21st century walking around a city or a town with a gun visibly
strapped to their body in some fashion.
GROSS: You know, with the NRA, what do you think is the bottom line of
what it wants? Is it about profits from gun sales? Is it about a genuine
belief in the right to bear arms? Is it a combination of the two? Is it
something else? Like what's the bottom line for the NRA?
Prof. SPITZER: The NRA faces kind of a demographic problem which is
this: that its core base of support is gun owners. Not all gun owners,
to be sure, the NRA is an organization of about four million members and
there are over 80 million gun owners in the country. So most gun owners
are not members of the NRA and I would say most do not particularly
agree with the particular stands of the NRA.
But gun ownership and gun use has been gradually declining since about
the 1960s and for a variety of reasons. And if you project that line
out, the ever diminishing pool of people who own and use guns does not
spell a good future for the NRA, politically, because that's their core
base. So much of their dynamic, I think, has been to try and encourage
gun carrying, gun use, and gun ownership.
And there is an ideological component as well, but I think, ultimately,
like any organization, it continues to pursue its goals, wants itself to
be large, to be politically influential and to maintain that for which
it was created and then modified.
GROSS: You write in your book, that the NRA is going international now.
What are they doing in other countries and what is their interest in
Prof. SPITZER: The NRA increasingly has an international focus. In the
late 1980s, they became the equivalent of a registered lobbyist at the
United Nations to try and head off increasing efforts at the UN to take
action to restrict the international small arms trade, for example. And
the NRA has increasingly invested resources in other nations to help
growing gun rights movements in those nations. In nations like Canada. A
few years ago it played an important role in Brazil. There was an effort
- there was going to be a national referendum - there was a national
referendum in Brazil to impose fairly strict gun regulations. An effort
that was supported, in public opinion polls, by most Brazilians.
But the NRA spent a great deal of time and effort to help organize gun
rights opposition to that referendum and succeeded in defeating the
referendum using many of the tactics and kinds of arguments that are
made in the United States. Brazil does not have a second amendment in
its constitution, but other political arguments about self-defense and
other things resonated with Brazilians and the measure was defeated. And
indeed, the NRA has been involved in the politics of nations like
Australia, Canada, Britain and elsewhere.
GROSS: Well, thank you so much for talking with us.
Prof. SPITZER: Terry, a real pleasure to be with you.
GROSS: Robert Spitzer is the author of âThe Politics of Gun Control.â
He's the distinguished service professor of political science at the
State University of New York College at Cortland. Our interview was
Coming up, we remember country singer Charlie Louvin who performed with
his brother Ivan as the Louvin Brothers. Charlie Louvin died yesterday
at the age of 83.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
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Charlie Louvin: Remembering Country's Harmonizer
TERRY GROSS, host:
Elvis opened for them. The Everly Brothers were inspired by their
harmonies. The Byrds recorded their song, âI Like the Christian Life.â
Emmylou Harris recorded their song âIf I Could Only Win Your Love.â
The Louvin Brothers were considered one of the great vocal harmony duos
of country music. They were popular at the Grand Ole Opry and well-
represented on the country-music charts from the late '50s until the
mid-'60s, when the act broke up. Brother Ira was killed in a car
accident soon after.
Charlie Louvin kept performing at the Opry and continued to record. His
final album was released last year after he was diagnosed with
pancreatic cancer. Charlie Louvin died yesterday at the age of 83.
We're going to listen back to an interview I recorded with him in 1996
after the release of an album in which he recorded solo versions of
songs he used to perform with his brother, including this one.
(Soundbite of song, "When I Stop Dreaming")
Mr. CHARLIE LOUVIN, BARRY AND HOLLY TASHIAN (Country music singers):
(Singing) When I stop dreaming, that's when I'll stop loving you.
Mr. LOUVIN: (Singing) The worst that I've ever been hurt in my life, the
first time I ever have wanted to die, was the night when you told me,
you love someone else and you asked me if I could forget.
Mr. LOUVIN, BARRY AND HOLLY TASHIAN: (Singing) When I stop dreaming
that's when I'll stop loving you.
GROSS: Charlie Louvin, with harmonies by Barry and Holly Tashian.
I asked Louvin if it was difficult to sing without his brother's
harmonies after his brother died.
Mr. LOUVIN: I had always believed that any songs worth singing is worth
putting harmony on and, of course, I had grown use to that for the 23
years that my brother and I had worked together. And even today, 34
years after he's gone, I - when it comes time for the harmonies to come
in, I will move to my left because my brother and I always used to 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, knowing in my mind that
there's no harmony standing on my right. But it's just old habits are
hard to break.
GROSS: Your earlier recordings were gospel tunes. Many of them were
originals. In fact, why don't we hear one of those originals that you
co-wrote with your brother, Ira. This was made in 1952 and the song is
called "The Family Who Prays."
(Soundbite of song, "The Family Who Prays")
LOUVIN BROTHERS: (Singing) The family who prays will never be parted.
Their circle in Heaven unbroken shall stand. God will say enter my good
faithful servant. The family who prays never shall part.
Satan has parted fathers and mothers. Filling their hearts with his envy
and hate. Aiding their pathway down to destruction. Leaving their
children like orphans to stray. The family who prays will never be
GROSS: The Louvin Brothers from 1952. Chet Atkins featured on electric
Mr. LOUVIN: Yes. Chet recorded our first Capitol Record with us, and
Chet is a big part of the Louvin Brothers sound from "The Family Who
Prays," right on through to the end of the Louvin Brother career.
GROSS: You were singing a lot of gospel songs early in your career. But
I know your brother Ira had the reputation of being a heavy drinker and
of having quite a temper. Did you share the same religious convictions?
Did you live with the same kind of values or was there a big difference
Mr. LOUVIN: No. When, you know, a lot of us know better but we don't do
better. He knew better. He was extremely well-versed on the Good Book,
as far as knowing what was right or wrong, he just - he just wasn't able
to conquer the devil, I guess. But we didn't have any major problems
with the drinking until I'd say end of 1958. The Louvin Brother records,
the sales slowed down, as all other country artists did in 1958 because
the music was changing.
So our producer told my brother, I believe that it's the mandolin that's
keeping the Louvin Brother records from selling, which had always been a
featured part, and my brother worked hard to become proficient on the
mandolin. And when this producer, namely, Ken Nelson, said this to my
brother, and my brother feeling that Mr. Nelson was a close friend and a
trusted friend, he believed him.
And so he would never play his mandolin again on a recording after that
statement. If it would come up, somebody would say, oh, I think this
would sound good with the mandolin, my brother would say, no, let the
piano do it or let the guitar do it, anybody but I'm not doing it. And
it caused him to drink extremely heavy and he went between then and the
time he passed away, went through three wives and just lots and lots of
problems that he never could whip.
GROSS: Did you start losing dates, too? Did he get a reputation for
drinking a lot?
Mr. LOUVIN: Unfortunately, Terry, if you're half of a duet, one person
in that duet don't ever get a bad name. It's just the Louvin Brothers
Mr. LOUVIN: The Louvin Brothers did that. Anything he did, good, bad or
indifferent, I was, in the minds of the promoters and the radio stations
and what have you, I was as guilty as he and no way that I could change
it. The only way I could change it would be for us to not to be
And that finally happened in August 18th 1963. I just - we had gone from
a pretty good career in, well, from early, the '50s, the song, "The
Family Who Prays," right on up through our recordings we had done quite
well and we found ourself in 1963 on the bottom of the totem poll,
playing very few dates.
And - because promoters, the men who spend the money for the TV ads and
the radio ads and the newspaper and rent the building and all this, they
don't buy problems. With everything running as smooth as possible,
they'll still have enough problems to drive them halfway batty. But if
they know that any particular group is more out to cause them problems
than they are to be straight that day then they just won't buy them. And
that's what happened to the Louvin Brothers' career.
GROSS: We're listening back to a 1996 interview with country music
singer Charlie Louvin. He died yesterday at the age of 83.
We'll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Let's get back to our 1996 interview with country music singer
Charlie Louvin, who used to perform with his brother Ira as the Louvin
Brothers. Charlie Louvin died yesterday at the age of 83. He had
GROSS: I want to play another original gospel song that you recorded
called "I Like the Christian Life." This is really a beautiful song.
Gram Parsons loved this song and used it on The Byrds album "Sweetheart
of the Rodeo." Do you remember writing this?
Mr. LOUVIN: No, I don't. Things went and come in the Louvin Brother
career. Sometimes my brother would be a totally good man. He could've
been a preacher if he wanted to. He was that knowledgeable of the Good
Book and he had the gift. But my brother was the gifted songwriter. I
came up with the idea. If I could give him a title and a few words of
the story, he could write it in five minutes. So this is the way we
I don't specifically remember the day that that song was wrote. But I
remembered that my brother was attempting, with all of his might, to
live a Christian life so at that time. And the statement was made, I
like the Christian life. He thought that might make a song, so what
you're about to play is what he got just from that title.
(Soundbite of song, "I Like the Christian Life")
Mr. LOUVIN: (Singing) My buddies tell me that I should have waited. They
say I'm missing a whole world of fun. But I am happy and I sing with
pride. I like the Christian life.
I won't lose a friends by heeding God's call. For what is a friend who'd
want you to fall? Others find pleasure in things I despise. I like the
GROSS: What was your reaction when you heard "I Like the Christian Life"
performed by The Byrds?
Mr. LOUVIN: Well, I liked it. It was different. It was lazier. Didn't
have a fire in it that the Louvin Brothers had in their arrangement. But
I enjoyed it. Gram Parsons also recorded "Cash on the Barrelhead." And
the biggest favor that Gram Parsons ever did for the Louvin Brothers was
when he introduced Emmylou Harris to the Louvin Brothers sound.
And he played the song for her. I don't know exactly which song it was
but her remark was, who is that girl singing the high part? And Gram
said that's not a girl, that's Ira Louvin. And so Emmylou did a big
favor for the Louvin Brother music catalog. I guess it's about 500 songs
in all and she recorded five or six of them, which I appreciate. I know
Ira would have too.
GROSS: In fact, I think one of the songs she recorded was "If I Could
Only Win Your Love."
Mr. LOUVIN: That was her kickoff song for her career and I guess she
thought a Louvin Brothers song was a good luck charm for her so she
recorded "Everytime You Leave," "When I Stop Dreaming" and a couple of
the gospel songs.
GROSS: You still performing with the Opry?
Mr. LOUVIN: Yes, ma'am.
GROSS: How long has it been?
Mr. LOUVIN: I'm almost finished with my 42nd year.
Mr. LOUVIN: In February next, will be my 42nd anniversary and I'll start
into my 43rd year with the Opry. And I'm really hoping that it'll work
into something regular here soon.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: Yeah, right.
Charlie Louvin, recorded in 1996. He died yesterday at the age of 83. He
gave his final performance at the Grand Ole Opry last November.
I'm Terry Gross.
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