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American Routes Shortcuts: Charlie Louvin

Charlie Louvin
American Routes
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Charlie Louvin was a hero in the country world, but he also toured with Cheap Trick. He and his brother grew up in rural north Alabama near Sand Mountain.  Charlie said that the people on Sand Mountain were as poor as any other place in the Appalachians, and stubborn. Charlie Louvin passed in 2011, but when we spoke, he remembered his Alabama childhood well. 

Charlie Louvin: We was raised hard. I wish that I had the audacity to have raised my kids the same way but I didn’t have anything for them to do but every other week they’d switch around and cut the yard but that ain’t no job when the mower has got a seat on it. 

Nick Spitzer: So what was the work around the household when you were a young?

CL: Well we had a Sorghum mill when I was very young.

NS: For syrup. 

CL: Yeah, an unbelievable amount of work. In the old days, people had so many children, what it was, they were growing help. My mother was, she was what some people would call simple, plain, and other names. But she was a jewel. 

NS: Did you mother sing at home or in the community?

CL: She was a four-note Sacred Harp singer and a great one. We had – and they still do it – the Hanes Reunion. My mother’s mother was a Hanes. If you’ve ever wondered where the Louvin Brothers sound came from, I’d be happy to take you to the Hanes Reunion where they spread about a hundred and fifty foot long table with all your favorite food on it, and they sing six or seven hours on that day. 

NS: This congregation of singers of the old shape note style was important but how was it that you found your way to playing the guitar and having your brother harmonize with you on these kind of duet songs that really aren’t the congregational singing?

CL: Papa would always demand more or less that we would sing a song or two for people who visited. We were very bashful in our youth, and we had an old iron bed in the living room, course every room in the house had a bed in it except the kitchen. We would crawl on this iron bed and put our hind ends together and sing. That is how we learned to phrase together without looking at each other.

NS: It seems to me one of the remarkable things about brother duos and other families that sing together is because you’ve been singing together for so long you are really almost able to anticipate everything. You know the vocal range. You know what sounds good. And you don’t even have to probably think about it when you do some of these things.  

CL: Well that is exactly right. If you had a guy that we’ll say lived in Louisville, and you lived here in Nashville, I don’t care if you got together three nights a week for a year, you’d never capture what you and your brother could in a day. Not because I was part of it – I’m not bragging. 

CL: Then in 1941 someone, I don’t remember the band’s name, but hired us to work at a little old county fair in Flat Rock, Alabama. The man gave us three dollars a piece for singing all day. At that time when my daddy wasn’t working on our farm, he worked for fifty cents a day. We made as much money in one day doing what we loved to do as he could make in six days.  And so that totally sparked us. We just knew that that was the path that we wanted to travel.

To hear the full program, tune in Saturdays at 7 and Sundays at 6 on WWNO, or listen at americanroutes.org.