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Country Music Performer Charlie Louvin

In the 1950s, he and his brother Ira Louvin were regulars at the Grand Ole Opry. Their hits included, Cash On the Barrelhead, If I Could Only Win Your Love, I Love the Christian Life and When I Stop Dreaming. The duo split up in the early 1960s, and Charlie continued performing by himself. Ira was later killed in a car accident. There's a new tribute CD: Livin', Lovin', Losin': Songs of the Louvin Brothers. It features Emmylou Harris, James Taylor, Vince Gill, Glen Campbell and Dolly Parton.

22:00

Other segments from the episode on October 24, 2003

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, October 24, 2003: Interview with Charlie Louvin; Interview with Joe Frank; Review of the film "Elephant."

Transcript

DATE October 24, 2003 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Charlie Louvin discusses his years in the country
music duo the Louvin Brothers
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Elvis opened for them. The Everly Brothers were inspired by their harmonies.
The Byrds, Emmylou Harris and Elvis Costello recorded their songs. The Louvin
Brothers are 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 chart from the late '50s until the mid-'60s when the act broke up. Ira
Louvin was killed in a car accident soon after. Charlie Louvin continued to
record and to perform at the Opry. The Louvin Brothers' song "The Christian
Life" was introduced to rock audiences in the late '60s through The Byrds
album "Sweetheart of the Rodeo," which has just been reissued on CD. A new
tribute CD called "Livin', Lovin', Losin'" features Louvin Brothers songs
performed by Emmylou Harris, Merle Haggard, Glen Campbell, Linda Ronstadt and
others.

Before we hear from Charlie Louvin, let's hear a track from the tribute CD.
Here's Alison Krauss and James Taylor singing "How's the World Treating
You?"

(Soundbite of song)

Ms. ALISON KRAUSS and Mr. JAMES TAYLOR (Musicians): (Singing in unison) I've
had nothing but sorrow since you said we were through. There's no hope for
tomorrow. How's the world treating you? Every sweet thing that matters has
been broken in two. All my dreams have been shattered. How's the world
treating you?

GROSS: Music from the new Louvin Brothers tribute CD. Here's the Louvin
Brothers' 1955 recording of their song "When I Stop Dreaming."

(Soundbite of song)

LOUVIN BROTHERS (Country Music Performers): (Singing in unison) When I stop
dreaming, that's when I'll stop loving you. 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 loved someone else and asked me if I could forget. When I
stop dreaming, that's when I'll stop wanting you.

GROSS: I spoke with Charlie Louvin in 1996. I asked if it was difficult to
sing without his late brother singing harmony.

Mr. CHARLIE LOUVIN (Country Music Performer): I'd always believed that any
song worth singing is worth putting harmony on. And, of course, I had gotten
used to that for the 23 years that my brother and I had worked together. And
even today, 34 years after he's gone, 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, 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: The harmonies that you created with your brother, I think, were based
on the sacred harp singing that you used to do in church. Would you describe
those kinds of harmonies that come out of sacred harp singing or what's also
known as shaped note singing.

Mr. LOUVIN: I'm not sure, Terry, that I can describe them or explain them
where they'd be understood. It's just something--I don't have any musical
learning. What I know and what we did just came natural for us because we was
raised in a family that went to these sacred harp singings with regularity.
There's that I can't explain to it. There's actually--they're doing five-part
harmonies. And most people today thinks that four is the limit when a quartet
sings, that they've got all the parts, but the sacred harp or shaped note
singing people used five harmonies. And some of them are extremely high with
the ladies' parts and none of them as low as the quartets practice today. It
would be like a midrange bass part.

GROSS: How did you take the, like, five-part harmonies that were familiar
with from church and adapt that to a two-voice style? What did you use from
that? I guess what I'm really asking is how did you work out your harmonies
with your brother?

Mr. LOUVIN: My brother adapted a harmony that he thought sounded good and it
was always good enough for me. I remember once our A&R man asked my brother,
or actually he told him, he said, `That's not really tenor you're singing
there on that song, is it?' And my brother said, `What, you don't like it?'
And he said, `I didn't say I didn't like it. I just don't think it's, you
know, like regular tenor.' My brother said, `Well, I really don't know what
it is. I just thought it sounded good, so I put it in there.' And that's
kind of the way that we--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'd
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 in the song, and you'd
go ahead and change to a part that you was capable of doing.

GROSS: Your early 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)

LOUVIN BROTHERS: (Singing) The family who prays will never be parted. Their
circle in heaven unbroken shall stand. God will say, `Hither, my good
faithful servant, the family who prays never shall part.' Satan has parted
fathers and mothers, selling their hearts where there's envy and hate, heading
their pathways down to destruction, leaving their children like orphans to
stray. The family who prays will never be parted.

GROSS: It's the Louvin Brothers from 1952. Chet Aktins featured on electric
guitar?

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 there?

Mr. LOUVIN: No. 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 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. And 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.
My brother worked hard to become proficient on the mandolin. And when this
producer, namely Ken Nelson, said this to my brother, 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, `I think this would sound good with a
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 between then and the time he passed away, he went through three
wives and just lots and lots of problems that he never could whip.

GROSS: I want to play another original gospel song that you recorded called
"I Like the Christian Life." Now 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 Brothers'
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
ideas. 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 worked. I don't specifically
remember the day that that song was wrote, but I remember that my brother was
attempting, with all of his might, to live a Christian life. So, at that
time, when 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.

GROSS: Let's hear it. And this is from Charlie Louvin's new album called
"The Longest Train."

(Soundbite of song)

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 friend by heeding God's call. What
is a friend who'd want you to fall? Others find pleasure in things I despise.
I like the Christian life.

GROSS: That's Charlie Louvin from his new album "The Longest Train." Did
friends ever mock you for trying to live the Christian life?

Mr. LOUVIN: No, but I wouldn't say they mocked. When you're not living the
Christian life, you have one set of friends. And if you're going to profess
to live a Christian life, it's obvious that you're going to have to change
friends. You're going to have to change a lot of habits. Old habits being
hard to break, sometimes it can't be done. So if you prefer to hang around
with your old friends, there's a good chance that you'll drift right back
into doing exactly what you are trying to get out of doing.

GROSS: We're listening to a 1996 interview with Charlie Louvin. There's a
new Louvin Brothers tribute CD called "Livin', Lovin', Losin'." We'll
continue the interview after our break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: We're listening back to a 1996 interview with Charlie Louvin of the
great country duo, the Louvin Brothers. Their song "I Like the Christian
Life" crossed over to rock audiences in the late '60s when The Byrds did it
on their album "Sweetheart of the Rodeo." It's just been re-released on CD.

(Soundbite of song)

THE BYRDS (Rock Music Performers): (Singing) My buddies tell me that I should
have waited. They say I'm missing a whole world of fun, but I still love them
and I sing with pride I like the Christian life. I won't lose a friend by
heeding God's call, for what is a friend who'd want you to fall. Others find
pleasure in...

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. It didn't
have the 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. He played this 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
catalogue. I guess it's about 500 songs in all, and she recorded five or six
of them which I appreciate. I know Ira would've too.

GROSS: In fact, I think one of those songs she recorded was "If I Could Only
Win Your Love."

Mr. LOUVIN: That was her kick-off song for her career. And I guess she
thought a Louvin Brothers song was a good-luck charm for her, so she recorded
"Every Time You Leave," "When I Stop Dreaming" and a couple of the gospel
songs.

GROSS: Why don't we hear the Louvin Brothers 1958 recording of "If I Could
Only Win Your Love," the song that Emmylou Harris kicked off her career with.

Mr. LOUVIN: Yeah. As you listen to it, it'd be hard for you to imagine how
Emmylou came up with her version. But the young people today and some of the
musicians are so great that they can hear an old song and just think up a new
arrangement of it immediately.

(Soundbite of song)

LOUVIN BROTHERS: (Singing) If I could only win your love, I'd make the most
of everything, I'd proudly wear your wedding ring, my heart would never stray
one dream away. If I could only win your love, I'd give my all to make it
live. You'll never know how much I'd give if I could only win your love.
Oh, how can I ever say how I crave your love when you're gone away? Oh, how
can I ever show how I burn inside when you hold me tight? If I could only
win your love...

GROSS: That's the Louvin Brothers, recorded in 1958. And that recording is
featured on an anthology called The Louvin Brothers' "When I Stop Dreaming."

You and your brother broke up the Louvin Brothers and went your separate ways
in 1963, and it was, I think, just about a year later that your brother and
his wife were killed in a head-on road collision. And I think it was the
driver in the other car that was drinking and that was responsible for the
crash. Is that right?

Mr. LOUVIN: Yes, that's true. It happened in Missouri, halfway mark between
Kansas City and St. Louis. My brother was coming home from an engagement that
they had been on in Kansas City. And the other two people was going from St.
Louis to Kansas City to celebrate Father's Day; they just started celebrating
it too early, that's all. They didn't wait till they got out of that car.

GROSS: How did it change your life when your brother was killed?

Mr. LOUVIN: Well, I had already become a solo artist, so to speak, Terry,
and I had released--or Capitol Record people had released "I Don't Love You
Anymore," which went to the number-one spot. And I believe the second song
was "Think I'll Go Somewhere and Cry Myself to Sleep," and it was doing good
at the time. And my brother kind of felt that somebody had done him wrong,
but I hadn't. Music is the only thing I knew, and so naturally, I would try
to stay in the business because he had sworn to me that he was getting out of
the business. However, he was making attempts to get back in the business,
had a couple of records released for Capitol Records. Neither one of them had
done anything, but I'm sure that if he would have been given time, he'd have
figured out what the public wanted, and that's what he would have gave them.

GROSS: Charlie Louvin, recorded in 1996. A new tribute CD features Louvin
Brothers songs performed by country and rock singers and songwriters. It's
called "Livin', Lovin', Losin'." Here's a track featuring Emmylou Harris.
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. EMMYLOU HARRIS: (Singing) Hold back the rushing minute, make the wind
lie still. Don't let the moonlight shine across a lonely hill. Dry all the
raindrops, hold back the sun.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Filler: By policy of WHYY, this information is restricted and has
been omitted from this transcript

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Gus Van Sant's new film, "Elephant"
TERRY GROSS, host:

Gus Van Sant is best known for his films "Drugstore Cowboy" and "Good Will
Hunting." His new film, "Elephant," was inspired by the shootings at
Columbine High School in 1999 and uses a largely non-professional cast of
teen-agers who improvise their own lines. "Elephant" won the top prize at
this year's Cannes Film Festival. FRESH AIR film critic David Edelstein has a
review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN reporting:

"Elephant" is an attempt by director Gus Van Sant to make sense of the
senseless while at the same time trying not to shape it too much, to be true
to that senselessness. It's not drama, it's not documentary, it's not
docudrama; it's a sort of free-floating meditation on Columbine. It's tightly
controlled, yet it's purposively vague. It puts you right in the moment with
the victims and the killers, yet it also doubles back on itself, making leaps
in time as if to deconstruct one hellish day.

The movie is essentially a series of meandering takes, with the camera
stationed behind the heads of kids walking through or around their high
school, which is not Columbine; the film was shot in Portland, Oregon. The
same scenes are seen from different perspectives, not to suggest that each
person's reality is different as in "Rashomon," but to increase your empathy
for kids who don't know what's coming.

We begin with John, played by John McFarland--actually, all these actors use
their real first names--who's a laid-back stoner type with an alcoholic dad
who drops him off at school in the movie's opening. The dad is played by
Timothy Bottoms, lately famous for playing George W. Bush. Is he meant to
evoke Bush as a sort of drunkenly, reckless pilot of this ship of state, or am
I projecting? At times, "Elephant" seems intended as a giant Rorschach blot.

Our tendency to project things on other people--that theme is right in the
film. John greets Elias, a photographer who spends time in a darkroom,
perhaps so we can think about all we see or can't see in photographic images.
Sometimes we're with an attractive couple, sometimes a trio of popular girls
as they argue over a trip to the mall and make their ritual excursion to the
girls' room to vomit up their lunch. Sometimes we're with Michelle, a plain,
slightly overweight girl who won't wear shorts in gym class, sadly alienated
from her own peers and her own body. And sometimes we're with Alex and Eric,
the outcasts who finally show up at the school with duffel bags full of
automatic weapons, ammunition and explosives. These mundane comings and
goings have more weight because we know what's coming. We watch with knots in
our stomach and listen for the first cock of the rifle.

Normally, I'd play a clip here, but no single piece of audio comes near to
evoking this movie. You have to imagine characters walking down long
corridors, the soundtrack of vague hubbub with echoes of voices and locker
doors opening and closing; clouds scud by, first puffy then dark. Sometimes
we hear water or birds, sometimes Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata." One killer
picks out "Fur Elise" on the piano while the other plays a violent video game.
Is video destroying our youth, or Beethoven, or neither? The classical music
does suggest a higher order in the universe, but it's played in the end over a
scene in which one of the killers corners a young couple and decides which to
shoot by saying, `Eenie, meenie, miney, mo.'

The violence, when it comes, is terrible; more obscene in its randomness than
anything I could imagine in a movie. "Elephant" hurts you in ways you don't
see coming, but to what end? Van Sant has cited the verite documentaries of
Frederick Wiseman as a model. But Wiseman's subjects had moments of
transparency and radiance, and these characters are inarticulate and closed
down. This is a reductive movie and a needlessly cryptic one. Even its title
is cryptic, which is ironic since it's meant as a reference to the joke about
the elephant in the room, that huge thing that everyone is insanely ignoring.

Van Sant is trying to do a lot of contradictory--or maybe I should say
dialectical--things, and my response was dialectical, too. I admired the hell
out of his ambition and his determination to invent a new language for a new
kind of horror. Yet at times, I wanted to throttle him for being so cool, so
dissociated, such an aesthete. Some critics have hailed "Elephant" as a
masterpiece; others an obscenity. I think it's a tantalizing collage. You
need to complete it in your head, but whether that movie bears any resemblance
to the one Van Sant intended is anyone's guess.

GROSS: David Edelstein is film critic for the online magazine slate.

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

We'll close with music by songwriter and singer Elliott Smith. He died on
Tuesday, an apparent suicide. He was 34. Many of his songs were despairing.
His best-known song, "Miss Misery," was on the soundtrack of "Good Will
Hunting."

(Soundbite of "Miss Misery")

Mr. ELLIOTT SMITH: (Singing) I'll fake it through the day with some help from
Johnnie Walker Red. Send the poison rain down the drain to put bad thoughts
in my head. Two tickets torn in half and a lot of nothing to do. Do you miss
me, Miss Misery, like you say you do?

A man in the park read the lines in my hand. Told me I'm strong, hardly ever
wrong. I said, `Man, you mean...'

You had plans for both of us that involved a trip out of town to a place I've
seen in a magazine that you'd left lyin' around.

I don't have you with me, but I keep a good attitude. Do you miss me, Miss
Misery, like you say you do?

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