[Editor’s note: Here’s a blast from our past, Neko Case interviewing Charlie Louvin in our very first, now hard-to-find, issue. It set a template for our future issues and we can’t thank Ms. Case enough for all the work she did for the magazine. With Louvin’s passing on January 26, 2011 at the ripe old age of 83, we figured it was high time to share this interview once again with our readers. We hope you enjoy it.]
When the editors of the Fretboard Journal told me they were going to cover tenor guitars, I was really excited. I told them they should do a story about the Louvin Brothers making their exquisite tribute album to the Delmore Brothers (originally released on Capitol in 1960). They said, “OK, but you have to write it.” Busted. Three months later, I ﬂew to Nashville between tornado funnels to get a first-hand account. So now, with all the know-it-all I can muster, I will try to recount for you my afternoon with the great Charlie Louvin.
It’s a story that stars the Louvin Brothers, the Delmore Brothers and a little Martin tenor guitar. I was nervous at the thought of interviewing Charlie, but when I showed up at the Louvin Brothers Museum in Bell Buckle, Tennessee, he was there waiting just like he said he would be. Charlie was a little formal at first, but after a few questions he was on a roll. He’s a seasoned interview pro so I didn’t have to get all uncomfortable and intrusive. He did most of the work. We talked for three hours and filled up two tapes. He even let me sit in his truck. –Neko Case
Neko Case: When was the first time you heard the music of the Delmore Brothers?
Charlie Louvin: I suppose I first heard them when I was ﬁve years old. They were on the Opry in the ’30s. I never got to see them play as a kid. You imagine what people look like, but now television has taken all of our imagination away. A lot of people don’t know this, but the Delmores were the hottest duet that ever was, or probably ever will be, on the Grand Ole Opry. There has never been a brother team that could breathe together like that. You couldn’t find closer harmonies. It was like one man had two voices. They absolutely happened together. You don’t ﬁnd in pickup tenor singers what you find in siblings.
NC: Why is that?
CL: When you live under the same roof as your brother or sister, you don’t talk above their head and they don’t talk above yours. All you ever heard or learned or thought or wished for, they’ve done the same thing. You can accidentally do things together better that you never rehearsed. You talk the same. Nobody ever has to say, “Don’t say that word that a-way, it sounds funny.”
NC: When did you and Ira start singing together?
CL: I didn’t know an instrument so we were honest-to-god kids, six or seven years old.
NC: When and how did you learn to play?
CL: My daddy played a five-string banjo, clawhammer style, so that’s the first instrument my brother played. We would borrow the banjo without Papa knowin’ it. We walked to school about a mile and three quarters every day. Ira would go out the back of the house with the banjo, go to the woods and cut through, and meet me down the road. We did this on Fridays ’cause at noontime at our two-room school, they’d move the partition between the two rooms, and anybody who wanted to sing and play, they’d congregate there. We got caught. Papa caught us with the banjo.
NC: Was he mad?
CL: No, he just assured us that we’d best not do that again. He’d only tell you one time – if you didn’t believe it, he’d convince you.
NC: At the same time, wasn’t he impressed that the two of you were interested in music?
CL: Yeah, he was. But he needed us on the farm and he told our teacher if there wasn’t nothin’ going on but singing after 12 to “send my boys home.” So that cut that out.
NC: So when did you guys find the time to play music together?
CL: We sang together in the cotton fields, in the corn fields, wherever we were at.
NC: So who played the first instrument and what was it?
CL: Ira did. He knew how to play the banjo, but just the banjo is not the right instrument if you are trying to sing. So he bought a guitar. I’d give anything to still have it. It was called a “Black Knight,” looked exactly like a Gibson if the Gibson was coal black. The Blue Sky Boys had a mandolin and guitar, the Monroe Brothers had a mandolin and guitar. ’Course, the Delmores used a tenor guitar, but at least one was a lead picker. You gotta have that. Ira said, “I’ll tell you what, you’re gonna have to play something . . . so you play the guitar and I’ll buy a mandolin.” He showed me what chords he knew and went and got a mandolin from a pawn shop in Chattanooga. It was an f-5 just like Bill Monroe’s. He learned, he sweated it, he became very proficient. And I learned rhythm guitar.
NC: How did the tribute record come about?
CL: We were kicking around the idea, and the label (Capitol) wanted to know who all we dug, and we named the Delmore Brothers and Roy Acuff [whom the Louvins would also do a tribute record for and who had coincidently been helped onto the Opry years earlier by Alton Delmore, thus starting his career].
NC: Was it Capitol’s idea for you to do the record?
CL: No, not really. We asked them, then we went to visit Alton. He was still living.
NC: Was that the first time you had met him?
CL: No, when my brother and I were working in Memphis, we were doing radio for Smilin’ Eddie Hill. The Delmores was gonna do a show in West Memphis, Ark., across the river, and we were on it also.
NC: You guys must have been very excited!?
CL: Yes, we were! Unfortunately, Rabon was a drinker and my brother was a drinker. West Memphis at the time was a dry county, so Ira and Rabon went to Memphis to get a bottle and just dang near missed the show. So here’s Alton and myself, the two lead singers, ready to go, but the show had to be delayed ’til they got back. After they got back, we was sorry they did. That was the only time I met Rabon.
NC: But you came to know Alton over the years?
CL: We knew Alton well. I visited him a few times in his home, so when we got these songs together, we wanted to conﬁrm with Alton that these are 12 of the Delmores’ best, and if there was another song he’d prefer, well, please tell us. He checked over the list and says, “You couldn’t have done better.” Then he gets up and goes across the room and he comes back with this guitar case with about a sixteenth of an inch of dust on it. He laid it down and opened it up and said, “This is the ﬁrst time this guitar case has been opened since Rabon passed away.” And he said, “I’m gonna give you this guitar, this is Rabon’s tenor guitar.”
NC: What kind of guitar was it?
CL: It was a Martin. After our visit we brought it home, and Ira took the strings off. It had the same strings that Rabon had picked on, so Ira took a bucket lid, put the strings in and ﬁlled it with kerosene – coal oil or whatever you wanna call it – and he soaked ’em for three or four days. Then he rubbed ’em real good with a Turkish-type towel, and they shined like new strings! And when he put them back on the guitar they sounded like new. That’s what we cut the album with.
NC: Wow! Was it Ira who played it?
CL: Yes! Although, he didn’t tune it exactly like a tenor guitar is supposed to be tuned, he tuned it like the top four strings on a guitar.
NC [like a spazzy moron]: Really! Cool! That’s how I do it, too!
CL: DGBE, he did it quite well, I thought. Alton was truly smashed that someone would, that anybody would, do that for the Delmore Brothers.
NC: It must have meant a lot to him that you were all from the same part of Alabama, too.
CL: Yes, we were all so cotton-picking poor.
NC: Do you still have that guitar?
CL: No, when Alton passed away his son, Lionel, wanted to give the Hall of Fame his father’s guitar and he came to me and said, “What would you take for Rabon’s guitar?” I really wanted to present Alton and Rabon’s guitars at the same time, so I just gave it to him.
NC: Did your versions of the Delmore songs become radio hits all over again? You must have introduced them to a whole new audience.
CL: It got played quite a lot. Tragically, when the original Delmore recordings came out, they weren’t licensed for the radio. ASCAP refused to sign country songwriters to the company ’cause they thought our music was corny. Thankfully, Gene Autry broke that. He had a song out that ASCAP didn’t want to publish ’cause it supposedly had “no substance.” Gene’s lawyer said, “You mean it doesn’t have as much substance as the song ‘Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavor on the Bedpost Overnight’?!” That’s how he won the case. Anyway, when we cut the Delmores’ songs, they were fully licensed for radio, and Alton made some pretty decent money and was able to pass it on to his children. I wish we had come along earlier so Rabon could have seen some of the success of their songs redone.
The Louvins’ tribute to the Delmore Brothers turned out to be nothing short of a masterpiece: a respectful ode to the sincerity and precision of the Delmores’ classic recordings. Their versions of “Southern Moon,” “Brown’s Ferry Blues” and “Lay Down My Old Guitar” are stunning. It’s moving to listen to Ira and Charlie bend their voices to the tidier style of the Delmores’ soft delivery. The songs are a balance of careful craftsmanship and the Louvins’ signature passionate harmonies. A labor of love, no doubt. I can’t imagine that Alton Delmore himself was not moved beyond words.
I was sad to wind up my afternoon with Charlie; he was a very engaging and gregarious host. And despite our exciting discussion, he was no less a mystery to me. There’s a funny thing that happens when you are a living legend and a regular guy: I think it’s hard to describe the intent of your music beyond desire, or to feel how important your contribution is. I’m not talking about the false veneer of fame, but the satisfaction that you’ve made your mark and that your music will be enjoyed and respected long after you’re gone. I asked Charlie about this feeling. He tried to describe it, but just looked kind of wondrous. I think it might be too ﬂeeting and peripheral a feeling to describe with words. Only music will do. Thanks Charlie.