In fact, you used to be able to hang out near the Troubadour Theater's concession stand and see some very stark photographs of the 1965 Missouri car wreck that killed Charlie's brother Ira — they were right there on the wall above the Goo-Goo Clusters , and a reminder of a country-music reality modern Nashville has moved far beyond, or thinks it has. Some time in the past year the photos were taken down, but Charlie keeps on moving, as if the weight of all the schoolhouse gigs, marathon package tours and rain-slicked roads he's seen in his career is nothing more than another cigarette to be flicked away in the dark.
Charlie has cut some interesting records in the past few years, but it's his sheer perseverance that's perhaps most impressive at this late date. He continues to take the stage, although the Midnite Jamboree shows I saw in August and September revealed a very sick man — during the first show, Charlie struggled manfully through the first song, and then abandoned singing for storytelling. Hard case that he is, he even made a sardonic joke about drunk drivers helping mankind meet its quota of highway death on a Saturday night.
The Midnite Jamboree shows were Charlie in his element. He's doing a show at East Nashville club fooBar tonight, which the management has advertised as the 50th anniversary of the release of The Louvin Brothers' Satan Is Real album. (It's actually the 51st, since the record hit the racks in Nov. 1959, but who's counting.) The venue probably doesn't mater to Charlie — a date is a date. He's a tough old bird who still has the gumption to complain about the gigs he's not getting. I caught up with him at his Wartrace, Tenn., home on one of the last warm mornings in late November.
Nashville Cream: We hear you bought a new house recently, Charlie.
Charlie Louvin: We moved on the sixth of April. About to get everything unpacked.
Cream: Do you spend time reflecting on your career?
Louvin: Well, the last few years has been the worst part of my career as a solo artist. I'm getting one show a month on the Opry. There's several people who are doing close to a hundred times better than that. I'm gettin' one of 20 shows they have in a month.
Cream: So you think you should be working more.
Louvin: Absolutely. I think I deserve it. But unfortunately, being there a long time is not good.
Cream: I like Charlie Louvin, the record you did with Mark Nevers. I wanted to tell you that I emailed Mark to get a quote from him about working with you. He got back to me and said, "You can't stop him — you can only hope to contain him."
Louvin: Mark and I didn't have any problems. That record got us a Grammy nomination, but we didn't win. My manager at the time, [Tompkins Square label head] Josh Rosenthal, wanted me to go to California, and go alone. I said I'd take one person, but only if he'd book a date out there where we could pay for the trip. So he booked us a gig not too far away from where the Grammies were held. The trip was enjoyable, but airplanes are not too groovy today. You might get a cup of coffee or a cola, maybe.
Cream: In the late '50s, did Capitol Records pressure you to change your sound?
Louvin: The only thing that ever happened — well, I guess you could say it destroyed the Louvin Brothers — was that Ken Nelson, who was the A&R man for our first five years, he told Ira one day that he believed the mandolin was hurting the sales of Louvin Brothers records. I thought that was ridiculous, since Ira had spent 30 years on the mandolin and he became pretty damn proficient. But after Ken told him that — I believe it was 1958 — Ira never introducted [sic] another song that we recorded, or turned it around in the middle. It put him in high gear with his drinking.
Cream: It seemed like that made Ira very unhappy.
Louvin: We broke up in August of 1963, 'cause I just could not handle a drinker. The more important the show, the more Ira would drink. If somebody said, "You boys had better strut your stuff tomorrow," as sure as the world, Ira would drink himself blind. He went through three wives. His fuse was much, much shorter than mine.
Cream: Tell us about working with Elvis Presley in the late '50s. Did you talk to Elvis a lot?
Louvin: One night Elvis came off the stage and started playing an old hymn, what we specialized in, and said, "This is what we like." And Ira called him a white nigger, and said, "If that's what you like, why do you do that crap on stage?" Elvis looked up and smiled and said, "When I'm out there, I do what they want to hear." Some people claim there was a fight, but that was the end of it.
Cream: How do you think the Louvins fit into country-music history?
Louvin: The only thing I could tell a man that asked me that is that we weren't thinking about 60 years ahead. We were only tryin' to make a living.