When I Stop Dreaming: Charlie Louvin, RIP

Paul Harvey

Grading papers today to the sounds of the Louvin Brothers. The surviving member of the great duo, Charlie Louvin, passed away this week (his brother Ira, of course, died in a car crash in 1965, a victim of his own alcoholism). Charlie's obituary, with a summary of his career, is here. Their all-time great album cover for "Satan is Real" is above, together with the song. The title for this post comes from their country classic "When I Stop Dreaming," of course famously covered by Emmylou Harris and numerous others later.

Charlie's passing also brought to mind an essay I read a long time ago, had forgotten about, but on re-reading find it just about the best thing I've read on the Louvin Brothers, and one of the most insightful pieces that exists on country music and religion: Lorin Stein, "High Lonesome Theology," published originally 2001 and reprinted over at Killing the Buddha. A little excerpt below, but don't miss the rest:

On the face of it, there’s something paradoxical about the Louvin Brothers’ lasting popularity in country rock and hipster circles. Since the sixties, their sacred songs have enjoyed a kind of transgressive chic. Partly this is camp and condescension. But I think it has more to do with the loneliness of their gospel; and Satan Is Real is their loneliest gospel album.

You don’t need to have been raised Baptist to be moved by “The Christian Life”: to hear the delicate, sad tone of explanation in Charlie’s voice when he sings, “Others find pleasure in things I despise” or the yearning in Ira’s harmony on the following line: “I like the Christian life.” The words want to tell a story of triumph, but the story they actually tell-and the story that the Louvins Brothers sing-is more complex:

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.

It would be impossible for Billie Holiday, or for that matter Patsy Cline, to sing “world of fun” more mournfully than Charlie does. When he sings “I am happy,” caution and sadness are built into the very notes of the song.


Randall said…
_Satan is Real_ is a beautiful album. From gospel tunes to murder ballads, the Louvin Bros are remarkable originals. This marks the passing of an America icon.
Joe Reiff said…
Thanks for the link to this article. I've been fascinated with the Louvins since I fell in love with the Byrds' "Sweetheart of the Rodeo" in college years. Charlie and Ira's harmonies are just plain gold.

Popular Posts