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Charlie Louvin - Charlie Louvin

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Artist: Charlie Louvin

Album: Charlie Louvin

Label: Tompkins Square

Review date: Apr. 25, 2007

“You can’t sell tobacco with gospel music.” That’s what a radio sponsor reportedly told Charlie and the late Ira Louvin, together the Louvin Brothers, which convinced the Opry-bound country duo to play some secular material here and there. You can’t sell a particularly badass image with gospel music, either... or, at least, Charlie Louvin never tried to. But that didn’t stop a large group of more-or-less fashionable guest stars from rallying around Louvin for this, his solo debut at age 80, comprised largely of unfashionable, wagon-circling Christian numbers. Jeff Tweedy, Mac McCaughan, various members of Lambchop, Elvis Costello, and even David Kilgour guest-star. From the liner notes, the whole thing takes on a somewhat creepy appearance. Are a bunch of head-swollen celebrities tapping a fading icon in hopes of basking in the Johnny Cash Effect? Would Will Oldham take advantage of a sleepy old man? How can Louvin’s detached persona find its way around a production job this posh?

But much more than Cash did in his Rick Rubin years, Louvin runs the store here. He’s happy to trade verses with the young folks, but none of them, not even a singer as distinctive as Kurt Wagner, dilutes the album’s overall cast, one of resigned, diffident dignity. Aside from the relentlessly histrionic Costello, most of the newer jacks are hard to pick out. Tweedy’s voice disappears into the chorus of the apocalyptic sing-along “Great Atomic Power” (which the Louvins wrote half-a-century ago, and has remained disappointingly relevant). His injections of feedback symbolize nuclear destruction, but that’s about the extent of his influence. Oldham sits in on the girlfriend-killin’ “Knoxville Girl” (also covered by Lemonheads once! Hey!), but, under Louvin’s control, his trademark atmosphere of woozy surrealism never kicks in. Without pushing it, Louvin projects a stern, benevolent authority over the whole concern. Anyone who showed up looking for scene points only stayed because they wanted to learn something.

Predictably enough, Louvin’s duets with George Jones (“Must You Throw Dirt In My Face” and “Waiting For a Train”) are the most satisfying tracks on the album. Like all other distinct musical idioms, country has its own, deeply expressive language for pain, and Jones is its most versatile speaker. He’s the only guest with the confidence to really get comfortable in a Louvin track.

Actually, Eef Barzelay (of the white-bread alt-rock outfit Clem Snide) handles his business, too. On “The Christian Life,” basically a warning against peer pressure popularized by The Byrds on Sweetheart of the Rodeo, Barzelay’s character sounds as though he’s got a bit more to lose than Louvin’s, and he sings like his guts depend on it. Now, if he can hang onto that sort of conviction when he’s 80…

By Emerson Dameron

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