Seeing Charlie Louvin for the last time

When I was a boy, I collected stamps, right up until the moment the big time dealer all the way from Philadelphia glanced at the rare items I'd found among my grandmother's refuse and declared that they were not from Buenos Aires, nor Hamburg, but named the forger and the date of their creation. I no longer know what became of those stamps, but I sold the whole collection a couple years ago for $20.

When I was a young man, I collected records. Now I accumulate them. The difference was taught to me by the Police and by Split Enz, who sought to exploit my weakness by producing an array of colored vinyl "collector items" which my college Top Ramen budget could not hope to accommodate. That said, I have retained the 5,000 seven-inch singles which have come my way. I suppose, for the right price, I'd sell the whole collection, except for a couple of Mudhoney originals and some Elmore James Fire sides.

What I try not to do is collect famous people, except that's what everybody who's not a part of the business wants to hear about, and it's a big reason why some people end up in the music business. And so, when an artist's manager came down to the production office backstage at the AMA awards last Thursday, I was happy to accept the script rewrite. But, no, I didn't need to go say hello to the artist so he/she could apologize for changing my words. They were written to be changed, and I had nothing of interest to say. Small talk is not my forte.

Anyway, I had seen Charlie Louvin a couple times, including at one of the ND-sponsored parties at the Mercy Lounge during an earlier AMA convention in Nashville. (The joke is that much earlier in my career I went to interview then-Seattle City Attorney Doug Jewett, who had become anathema to the music industry through his silly quest to tidy up the city by banning all postering. He said he liked music well enough, mostly country, and named some acts I didn't know, nor even know how to spell, including the Louvin Brothers.)

I hadn't intended to see him on Friday night. I'd intended to see Kevin Gordon and Sarah Jarosz, and had intended next to leave so as to go back to the hotel and sleep because our seven-year-old had come along and refused to believe that getting up at 6 a.m. was a bad thing.

But somebody stopped me and said it might be the last time, that Mr. Louvin wasn't well and maybe shouldn't be there, but that Emmylou Harris would sing with him. As a quick glance at Mr. Louvin's webpage reveals, he has a stage two pancreatic cancer diagnosis. From the stage, he said he'd been in the hospital a dozen out of the last thirty days, and maybe still should be there. He also said he had a new album coming out in November 9, titled The Battle Rages On. A Civil War collection of songs with Del McCoury supporting, and somehow I'm a little uneasy about what battle they mean, but I'll trust that they mean well enough. I note with sadness that Mr. Louvin is smoking a cigarette on the album cover, but, I suppose, at 83...

He came on stage, small steps in tennis shoes, a baseball cap, glasses, a bright red shirt, a dark leather vest. George Burns, without the cigar.

I wondered why I was there a lot this last week, but Charlie Louvin onstage at the Rutledge that night made me feel acutely as if I had chosen badly. I mean especially not to be unkind, nor to judge the choices being made, but he had no voice left, and his (unlike Johnny Cash's) is not a voice meant to growl. Nor does his repertoire suit that transition. He didn't have much of that grand voice left a few years back.

But I had stayed, and he was keeping his commitment -- the show does ever go on and on and on -- and promoting his new album.

I lasted a song and a half, and as quietly as possible found my way out the door.

We didn't both have to be there.

Views: 179

Tags: AMA, alden, charlie, louvin

Comment by Kyla Fairchild on September 13, 2010 at 10:08am
I talked to someone else who was there and they commented that it was like watching someone perform at their own funeral.
Comment by Adam Sheets on September 13, 2010 at 2:40pm
Damn, this is an amazing piece of writing. Not sure if I want to hear the album or not. I loved late-period Cash, but as you said, the voices are worlds apart. I may just stick with the old Louvin Brothers records.
Comment by Elvis Fontenot on September 13, 2010 at 2:48pm
That's a touching and honest piece - I don't think I could have stood watching it either. From the point of view of Charlie Louvin, he's probably doing what he knows to create a sense of comfort and familiarity; it's a cathartic process that has to be lived out in public, in front of an audience, however painful that may be for all parties. Think Johnny Cash in "Hurt", I guess.
Comment by Tom Sukitsch on September 13, 2010 at 2:50pm
Makes me very sad. I do however have to disagree about performances in the last few years. I saw Charlie Louvin at SXSW in 2007 at the Parish. He was in fine voice that night, was promoting a fine, new CD which had just come out. My memory of that night was the opposite of Mr. Alden's comments above. I not only stayed until the end, but left wishing that the show had gone on far longer. Fight the good fight, Charlie.
Comment by Adam Sheets on September 13, 2010 at 3:58pm
Allow me to clarify my comments. My grandpa recently died of cancer and we were all at his side when he passed on. Maybe someday I'll be able to listen to it; he's certainly one of the all-time greats. I just don't think I'll be getting it on the release date.
Comment by chris sweeney on September 13, 2010 at 6:38pm
Yes, the truth hurts sometimes. I didn't feel the need to mention it, but I had seen Wanda Jackson about three years ago in Phoenix - while I was honored to be in her presence, I felt like I was catching her well past her prime. Maybe it was just an off night.

In any case, I strongly recommend the 2003 Carl Jackson produced "Livin', Lovin', Losin' - Songs Of The Louvin Brothers". It's a great tribute CD with many highlights including Glen Campbell singing "When I Stop Dreaming".
Comment by Roscoe on September 13, 2010 at 6:46pm
good writing but don't dig his grave just yet i saw him earlier this year in a small cafe and he was amazing
Comment by Edd Hurt on September 14, 2010 at 8:39am
Glad you made the effort. I went to see Charlie Louvin at more or less a real country-music venue, the Ernest Tubb Midnite Jamboree out in the wilds of across-the-river East Nashville with its its gift shops and tourist hotels. A couple of weekends ago, and had heard he was very sick. This was a taped radio show and he tried to sing one song and just couldn't do it, talked a lot, and had a few guests come out to pay tribute and sing--old Opry stars: Jean Shepherd, Bill Anderson. As a performance, it wasn't even there, and having seen him not long before and talked to him a few times in person, and heard his recent records, it wasn't anything disappointing. His voice was gone a long time ago--you may have seen how much Charlie smoked. But as a look at what a man has done with his life--get up on stages and entertain, and the rapidly vanishing world of the old-time country star (there used to be black-and-white photos of the car wreck that killed Charlie's brother Ira, right there on the wall of the concession stand at the Tubb Theater), it was instructive indeed. What else does an old trouper do? As a performance, it was small talk elevated into a weird cabaret act. Charlie is about the age my dad would have been had he lived, and from the same general part of the country, although I know my dad was a far more conventionally educated man even with the roots right there in a farm in Sumner Country, Tenn. And Charlie is a cantankerous man who probably thinks it's both amusing and appropriate that many younger people who think country music started with Gram Parsons giving tribute to the Louvin Brothers now look to him as a grand old avatar. But he's not and never has been--he's just a sick man who needs a rest. Which is why you couldn't have paid me enough to see Louvin at the Routledge, for even one song. Let's honor small talk and forget the music biz for a while--we've still got the records and all that detritus.
Comment by Holly Gleason on September 14, 2010 at 10:25am
how does a star fade? if it doesn't just flame out or fall from the sky...
this is the latest reality being navigated by our legends,
and it makes me sad
cause you want to hang onto everything special, everything precious
it is about recognizing that greatness shifts, but the shift can be potent, too
look at the johnny cash records he made w rick rubin
it is painful to see when it's shilling, hard to watch when it's someone we revere
but if it's them savoring the thing they do, perhaps it's a different kind of sacred grace

i have no answers
i know how grant feels
went through something different but the same this year
mostly, it makes your heart hurt and your mind spin
if in that, we remember why the music matters, let it lift us up again
then the circle remains unbroken
Comment by Hillbilly Haiku on September 14, 2010 at 10:45am
"it is painful to see when it's shilling, hard to watch when it's someone we revere
but if it's them savoring the thing they do, perhaps it's a different kind of sacred grace"

Thank you , Holly. Yes, exactly.

One day I looked up and he's pushin' eighty.
An' he's brown tobacco stains all down his chin.
Well, to me he's one of the heroes of this country,
So why's he all dressed up like them old men?
He's drinkin' beer and playin' Moon and Forty-two.
Like a desperado waitin' for a train.
Like a desperado waitin' for a train.

--Guy Clark

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Created by No Depression Feb 17, 2009 at 9:06pm. Last updated by No Depression Sep 24, 2012.