Charlie Louvin

Last night at the Rodeo Bar we got to see what makes New York City such a wonderful place for bluegrass, old-time and traditional country. Charlie Louvin played a 2 1/2 hour set, joined by Boo Reiners and Ben Fraker, both veterans of the Brooklyn scene (Ben played with me in the Kate and Lou Band) and showed us all what singing and musicianship is all about. (Both shows are over, so if you missed it, cross your fingers and hope he’ll be back next year.)

The Louvin Brothers aren’t a well-known name outside of traditional country circles anymore, which is a shame. They’re probably best known for the stunningly awful cover to Satan Is Real, their 1960 album of gospel songs. Along with the Delmore Brothers and the Blue Sky Brothers, they were one of the great brother-harmony duos, direct predecessors to the Everlys and every pair of guys who ever sang beautiful melodies in close harmony. Their songs, to this day, are fresh and gorgeous and irresistable. I had never heard of them until I started playing at jams, and someone would pull out an achingly beautiful song with a soaring harmony part, and the answer to “Where did THAT come from” was, more often than not, “The Louvin Brothers, of course!”

Ira, the mandolin-playing older brother, and the designer of the infamous album cover, was an ornery drunk who once called Elvis Presley (one of their biggest fans) a “white nigger.” He was almost shot and killed by his third wife after he attacked her, and died in 1965 in a drunk-driving accident. But his brother Charlie has continued on ever since, and last night, there he was, in New York City, in a great black Nudie jacket (or maybe not, it was a little restrained for Nudie).

He sang the great Louvin Brothers hits — “When I Stop Dreaming,” “I Don’t Love You Anymore,” “Cash On the Barrelhead.” He sang some newer songs that he’s been recording lately, including some that will be on an as-yet-unnamed album to come out in February. He played classics like “Long Journey Home” — a song we’ve all heard and played countless times, but that I’ve never heard sung so effortlessly. It was good and fast and had the drive it should have, but Charlie was completely relaxed as he sang. He took his time over every line, singing the words and hearing them and meaning them, and drove the song rather than having it drive him. His voice is nothing like it was, but his phrasing and grace and humor left the entire bar wavering between open-mouthed wonder, belly laughs and wild applause. The years of experience and life in his voice more than made up for the missing high notes and weatherbeaten tone.

In addition to Boo playing Telecaster and Ben on mandolin, the band also included NYC musicians Jon Dryden on piano and James Wormworth on drums, the latter having an incredibly infectious good time behind the kit. Travelling with Charlie were Diane Berry, a Texas singer who played acoustic rhythm, and Mitchell Brown, on five-string electric bass and vocals. With Charlie occasionally holding up a hand to indicate a chord change, or pumping his thumb in the air to call a key change, the band was tight and incredibly sensitive to his lead.

The first set was a solid hour, ending with Charlie saying, “I’d give five dollars just to see a picture of a restroom.” But gentleman that he is, he still took time to stop and talk and pose for photos with everyone who came up to him after he got off stage.

He spent more time offstage in the second set (smoking a cigarette — “Michael who?”), allowing Diane Berry — quite a singer in her own right — to take several leads, and also invited Jack Grace, who put the show together for the Rodeo, up to do a couple of numbers. Then he sang a few I’ve never heard before, including a song called “Ira,” which he introduced saying, “I didn’t have much occasion to associate Ira’s name with heaven” after he died. The song was heartbreaking, though — “He was the king of Sand Mountain, or at least I thought so,” it opened (they’re from Sand Mountain, Alabama), and I wanted to cry when he sang that line, listening to an 79-year-old man still missing his big brother, no matter how many problems they’d had between them. “Sometimes it seems like just last week,” he said about Ira’s death after the song was over, “but other times it seems like we hardly did anything.”

I stayed for both sets, got home at two, and I’ve been dragging all day. But whatever I should have been more alert for this morning was not as important or as memorable as that show last night. He’ll be back at the Rodeo Bar again tonight at 10. No cover, just a night you’ll remember for a long time.

(Top photo by Jen Larson, who was smarter than me, and brought her camera. Bottom photo courtesy my Treo.)

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