As we study the early generation of artists of this music genre we often call Americana string music we are reminded that these folks were talented and produced lasting memories. Today’s artists often point to those early performers as providing models to mold their own performances upon One particular performance style that gets mentioned again and again is the tight harmony singing many present day bluegrass groups exhibit.
From the mid-1930s into the 1950s, harmony duet acts—often comprised of two brothers—constituted a major style in country music. During this 30’s to 50’s era, dozens of brother acts gained fame through records and radio shows.
The ûrst actual brothers to become nationally known as a duet act were Alton and Rabon Delmore, from Elkmont, AL. They joined the Grand Ole Opry in 1933 and became widely known. They performed sacred songs, ballads, blues-inûuenced numbers, and popularized many self-penned songs as well.
Most Popular Ever
The end of the 1940’s brought the rise of what many still claim as the most popular brother duet act of all, the Louvin Brothers. The Louvins represented the commercial peak in this brother-duet style. The Louvin Brothers musical duet was composed of brothers Ira (Ira Lonnie Loudermilk, April 21, 1924 – June 20, 1965) and Charlie (Charlie Elzer Loudermilk, July 7, 1927– January 26, 2011). The brothers changed their name to Louvin in 1947 while working at WROL in Knoxville, because they wanted a professional name that was easier to pronounce and spell. The Louvin Brothers formed a link between the Delmore Brothers (the first famous brothers duet act) and rockabilly music’s Everly Brothers (the last famous brothers duet act).
The Louvin Brothers wrote and performed secular country music, as well as fundamentalist-inspired gospel music. Ira played the mandolin and usually sang lead vocal in the tenor range. Charlie played the rhythm guitar and sang supporting vocals in a lower pitch. They sang in the vocal technique that is referred to as close harmony. This is a vocal arrangement held within a narrow range usually with notes that are no more than an octave apart. During their performances, Ira usually sang lead but sometimes the brothers would swap parts in the middle of a song. Many listeners said that their harmony was so close that even a careful listener could lose track of which man was carrying the lead. This vocal interplay resulted in them becoming what many consider the most influential harmony duet in country music history. The Louvin Brother’s vocal gift of close harmony inspired many other harmony singers who followed in their footsteps. Their vocal style was an influence on the early rockabilly group, the Everly Brothers, who, in-turn, proved inûuential to many subsequent rock and pop performers, including the Byrds and the Beatles. This unique close harmony vocal style supported the Louvin’s career for 20 tough years. Just as they reached a level of fame and began to prosper a bit, early rock and roll music exploded with Elvis Presley sweeping everything aside (in fact Presley opened for Ira and Charlie on one of his first tours).
The Louvin Brothers background information at (countrymusichalloffame.org) tells us that Ira and Charlie grew up in a poor farm family who eked out a living on a tiny Depression-era cotton farm in northeastern Alabama. Like many folks in that situation, their life was hard. They had a father who demanded hard work and melted out harsh discipline with little mercy with older brother, Ira, receiving the bulk of his father’s wrath. Their mother taught them songs from the Sacred Harp Hymnal, which features faith-based songs sung in four parts. While Ira mastered the mandolin, Charlie picked guitar, and the boys saw music as a means to escape the harsh life that they were living. In a biography that Charlie wrote late in his life he stated, “We were two determined little bastards. We were no good at quitting at all. Whether or not he meant to, I’d say that’s one of the greatest gifts Papa gave us.”
The Radio Twins
While supporting themselves with day jobs, Ira and Charlie first performed as the Radio Twins in 1942; worked in Chattanooga with the Foggy Mountain Boys in 1943; and as the Louvin Brothers in 1947 at WROL in Knoxville, They spent considerable time in Memphis, until they became regulars at the Grand Ole Opry in 1955 and continued there until 1963.
The Louvins recorded for Apollo in 1947, Decca in 1949, and MGM in 1951 and 1952. Their recording sessions were sporadic, in part because of Charlie’s military service in both WWII and Korea. Commercial success eluded them until they began recording for Capitol in September 1952. They maintained the affiliation with Capitol until they disbanded the act in 1963. The Louvin Brothers’ scored a string of hit singles for Capitol in 1955 and 1956, during the early days of rock & roll. Alas, their musical style was meeting changing musical tastes. Many listeners by then considered their high lonesome harmonies and Ira’s soaring mandolin solos that were their trademark to be closer to the country music sound of the 1930s than to the honky-tonk country-pop sound of the mid-1950s.
The Louvin Brothers mixed gospel and secular forms that focused on traditional themes of family, love, and obligation. Their first three charting single recordings: When I Stop Dreaming, I Don’t Believe You’ve Met My Baby, and Hoping That You’re Hoping speak to this traditionalism. Their producer at Capitol, attempted to update the Louvins sound, including releasing some recordings without Ira’s trademark mandolin; however, the 1959 release titled, My Baby’s Gone served as their last top ten hit.
By the late 1950s, the changing market and Ira’s erratic, addictive-driven, reckless behavior contributed to the brothers’ sinking commercial fortunes. Various sources report that, when performing and drinking, Ira would sometimes become angry enough on stage to smash his mandolin when he was unable to tune it, and, when sober, glue it back together. Such actions as this, lead to the brothers breaking up their musical partnership in 1963 and embarking upon solo careers although, they were not estranged and did perform together several times over the next few years. In his biography, Charlie said, “Somehow, Ira and I managed to remain some kind of friends. It was an ugly thing when he drank and there was no fun in it.”
While the story of the Louvin Brothers relationship seems harsh, one must understand stories abound that tell that Bill and Charlie Monroe (Monroe Brothers) endured a temper fueled jealous relationship that resulted in separate career paths; Don and Phil Everly (The Everly Brothers) spent years in an estranged relationship that they never fully resolved; and Ralph Stanley of the Stanley Brothers endured the alcohol addicted conduct of his brother, Carter that hastened Carter’s death. In Charlie’s biography, he wrote, “The Delmore, Monroe, Wilburn, Everly and Bolick brothers duets put out the most beautiful music you could imagine, but when they weren’t onstage, they wouldn’t speak to each other, and they wouldn’t speak to you, either, if you happened to like the other one.”
After the brothers went their separate ways, Ira released a solo album in 1964, The Unforgettable Ira Louvin, which featured electric mandolin and electric guitar. Tragically, this was his only solo LP as he died in a Missouri car crash on June 20, 1965 at the age of 43.
On His Own
Charlie’s solo career faired much better and began with two top-ten hit singles: (I Don’t Love You Anymore and See the Big Man Cry). During the 1970s and 1980s, Charlie became a fixture on weekly Grand Ole Opry broadcasts. Watermelon Records released Charlie Louvin’s 1996 album, The Longest Train, which featured Charlie and guest performers. A 2003 tribute album, Livin’, Lovin’, Losin’: Songs of the Louvin Brothers, that showcased many top singers in folk, country, and rock won a Grammy for Best Country Album.
In 2007, Charlie released a self-titled album on the Tompkins Square label featuring George Jones, Elvis Costello, and Tom T. Hall, among others that received a Grammy-nomination. This was followed in 2008 by a traditional gospel album, Steps to Heaven, and a secular album, Charlie Louvin Sings Murder Ballads and Disaster Songs. In 2010, Charlie Louvin released an album of war songs, The Battle Rages On, and the EP, Back When We Were Young. Charlie died on January 26, 2011, after battling pancreatic cancer. He was 83 year old.
Country-rocker Gram Parsons introduced the Louvins’ songs to the rock world. Plus, he did several Louvin songs in a duet with Emmylou Harris. She reintroduced the Louvins’ material to country audience in 1975 when her version of their song, If I Could Only Win Your Love became her first top-ten country hit. The Louvin Brothers were elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2001.
Music Carries On
In the Americana string music recordings and outdoor bluegrass festivals that abound through the country, it is not unusual to hear artists offer a Louvin Brother’s song to an appreciative audience. Plus, the tight harmony singing that is a signature sound for many bluegrass and country gospel groups certainly pays tribute to Charlie and Ira Louvin’s legacy. Up and coming co-ed family groups and young sister duets also exhibit some of the most enjoyable sibling close harmony vocals since Ira and Charlie.
There is much more to know about the life and times of the Louvin Brothers than I have not mentioned in this essay. One of the best places to learn more is reading Charlie’s biography, Satan Is Real. In this book, Charlie tells Ira’s story, as well as his own. He devotes most of the book to their shared lives and careers while spending only a few chapters to tell of the years that followed Ira’s death. It is a profane and honest account of their lives and contains elements that may offend some in the country music world.
written by Edward Tutwiler