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.