Satan Is Real, but you won’t find him here
“The whole world has got to where if you told ’em, ‘I’ve got an ant, just a regular little ant that crawls on the ground, that can eat a thousand-pound roll of hay, and you can see him do that for a dollar,’ they’d say, ‘Well, I figured there was one of them somewhere, but I wouldn’t give a dollar to see him do it.’ There’s a lot of apathy in the world.”
So speaks Charlie Louvin in the late autumn of 1997 from his wooden rocker, a brown More cigarette flitting about for punctuation. We are in Bell Buckle, Tennessee, at the Louvin Brothers Museum, where we met scarcely two hours earlier with a live introduction on the radio. His speckled and callused old picker’s hand in mine, I gasped a barely audible hello: I am exceptionally moved and surprised to be meeting the Charlie Louvin.
Charlie, whose brother and singing partner Ira died in a car accident in 1965, is the very much alive half of the legendary Louvin Brothers. He’s just flown in from California, played Bell Buckle’s local radio show, and will be performing at the Grand Ole Opry (about 50 miles north in Nashville) twice tonight. Despite this demanding schedule, Charlie is willing to take time to show me the museum this afternoon; it’s typical of his warm and generous spirit.
The train doesn’t stop in Bell Buckle anymore; it rolls right through the center of town and keeps going. The railroad boomtown of the last century has been replaced with a slower yet rich pace; it’s been said, with appreciation, that Bell Buckle is 50 miles and 50 years from Nashville.
In the heart of Tennessee Walking Horse country, just up the road from Murfreesboro and roughly midway between Nashville and Chattanooga, Bell Buckle has a population just under 500. Current residents include no less than three state commissioned sculptors; Tennessee Poet Laureate Maggi Britton Vaughn; a handful of potters, folk artists, and musicians; and the head of an independent record label. Tourism has blossomed in recent years with such events as the annual Webb School Arts and Crafts Festival, the Quilt Walk, and the Moonpie Festival, along with antique malls and a spate of old-timey and crafts shops.
J. Gregory Heinike, like many of Bell Buckle’s residents, has his fingers in many pies. Once a kid of the streets, Heinike exemplifies the All-American self-made man: businessman, restaurateur, radio show host, record label owner (Bell Buckle Records, which is run with Nashville-by-way-of-Missouri musician Valerie Smith), and passionate community member. Smart, warm and extremely affable, he has made a home for family and friends while forging a happy marriage of art and commerce. With wife Jeanette and daughter Heidi, he runs Bell Buckle’s only restaurant, which functions as the town’s social hub.
Open seven days a week, the Bell Buckle Cafe features mouth-watering catfish, prize-winning hickory-smoked barbecue, and, from the small back room decorated with quilts, live music Thursday through Sunday. Heinike, a proud daddy and granddaddy, gears the cafe toward family life: music stops about 9 p.m., and there’s no hooch in the joint. Smoke ’em if you got ’em, but you’ll have to step out to the Main Street front porch and watch the train whistle by.
Thursday is an open-door writer’s night. Friday and Saturday nights and Sunday afternoons feature old-school acoustic country, bluegrass and gospel by some of the region’s most notable acts, including frequent performances by Bell Buckle recording artists Valerie Smith, Jim Connor, and the Mulberry Bunch. Sarah Causey, a red-hot, fast-fingered gospel pianist and singer, is not to be missed. It’s not unusual for her small children to jump onstage with tyke-size fiddle and guitar as she chords the piano, head turned, and calls out, “D, G, D, G”…
Saturday afternoons find Heinike running the J. Gregory Jamboree, a live radio broadcast from 1-3 p.m. on Shelbyville’s WLIJ, 1580 AM. Several musicians from outlying communities are regulars, telling stories, poking fun at one another, playing autoharp, guitar, fiddle, mandolin and banjo, and melding voices into sweet harmony. Wiseacre musician Junior Parker, in overalls and straw hat, emerges as a clear local favorite.
Audience participation is encouraged, and surprise performers pop in to play and do interviews. This is the segment in which I met Louvin. After telling all about his trip to Oakland, where he was treated like a king, then lost his car at the airport, he steps up to a mike, tapes a mini set list to the stand and performs several old standards including the Hazel Hauser-penned “My Baby’s Gone” with Smith. This rendition appears on Smith’s superb Bell Buckle Records debut Patchwork Heart.
Later, Charlie Louvin holds court from his rocker. He extols the praises of Emmylou Harris: “She put her career where her mouth was. She said, ‘I think the Louvin Brothers are great,’ and she recorded six or eight songs to prove she thought it.” He rails at the state of ’90s country music: “The BR-549, they’re a good group. I’ve heard those boys. And some people freaked out over the Kentucky HeadHunters, but I didn’t like that music. I didn’t like the way they looked. If you can’t sell records or entertain people if you’re a man, and look like a man, then there’s something wrong. You don’t have to look like a ’60s hippie. Sixties hippies didn’t enhance country music, and the ’90s hippie isn’t gonna enhance it either.” He decries the “pitiful” royalties (50 cents per unit) from the Louvin Brothers box set. Not one to hold back, Louvin clearly sees things in black and white.
For just over two years now, the Louvin Brothers Museum has been located in Bell Buckle, across the tracks from the cafe. “In 1985 we moved down there [to Alabama to run the Louvin Brothers Music Park]. That was the old homeplace, for me,” Charlie says. “But it never did work out. You can’t go back home. You can go home, but you can’t go back home. So we decided it was more expensive than what we could afford for a hobby. We [he and his wife, Betty] decided to move back to Tennessee.
“With all the arts and crafts shows that they have here, so many people come here; I thought this might be a good place to build a museum. We had all this stuff in storage that we moved up from Alabama. And so this man that owns the restaurant, Greg [Heinike] — he owns this land that this building’s on. And we have an agreement that as long as it stays the Louvin Brothers Museum, there’ll be no rent. We pay the lights, water, upkeep. And when we decide we don’t want to keep the museum, it’s already on his land, so he’ll own the building and the land. That’s really the only way we could afford to have a museum, ’cause we don’t charge to get in the museum, and we have a few things here for sale, but the profit on those is really not sufficient. We’re just doing this for the love of what the museum represents.”
As I get ready to leave, Louvin again takes my hand, and presses into it a copy of Charles Wolfe’s In Close Harmony: The Story Of The Louvin Brothers. He looks long and hard, and I expect a profound statement. Instead, I burst out laughing when he blurts, “There was a gal on ‘Falcon Crest’ by the same name as you.”
I watch from the porch as Betty steers their sedan through the heavy rain up the highway toward tonight’s Opry gig. Inside the book’s cover is written, “Best of the Good Life, To P. — Charlie Louvin” in bold black strokes.
When in Bell Buckle, if Charlie’s got an ant to show for a dollar, count me in.