Hardly Strictly Bluegrass: Charlie Louvin

Pub date October 3, 2007
WriterAri Messer
SectionMusicSectionMusic Features

A duet is a delicate thing, often recognized as romantic exhibitionism, rapport spilling forth. In classic Americana arrangements, in which verses are traded back and forth and choruses framed by intricate harmonies, the duet possesses a trippy if not schizophrenic grace: a singer begins the story, then it’s suddenly someone else’s. We hear of a brother’s death, and then that brother is heard harmonizing on the chorus.

While such magic is snide but joyful on albums such as Merle Haggard and Bonnie Owens’s Just Between the Two of Us (Capitol, 1966), for Country Music Hall of Famer Charlie Louvin, who lost his brother Ira, the other half of the legendary Louvin Brothers, to a car crash in 1965, the very idea of a duet is forever haunting. Yet he has continued to pursue it, with his rolling twang and sparkling eyes, well into his 80th year. Louvin has never lost his knack for the unique type of "shape-note singing" he and Ira developed, a blend of gospel harmonies and Appalachian musical forms inspired by other early bluegrass troubadours.

For his self-titled release on Tompkins Square earlier this year, Louvin cast spells with some younger collaborators. Clem Snide’s Eef Barzelay adds compelling, indecipherable emotion to "The Christian Life," originally on the Louvin Brothers’ remarkable Satan Is Real (Capitol, 1960). Alex McManus of Bright Eyes paints careful vocal touches on the Carter Family tune "The Kneeling Drunkard’s Plea." Amid a lyrical landscape of graveyards, bloodied rivers, and ill-fated lovers, Louvin continues to light up the shadows, with a few yelps from friends old and new. (Ari Messer)


Sat/6, 2 p.m., free

Amoeba Music

1855 Haight, SF


Sun/7, 12:55 p.m., free

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, Rooster Stage


The free festival happens Oct. 5, beginning at 3 p.m., and Oct. 6 to 7, starting at 11 a.m., at Speedway, Lindley, and Marx meadows in Golden Gate Park, SF. For more information on all of the performers and events, go to www.strictlybluegrass.com.