A new compilation of lost recordings from country music legends Ira and Charlie Louvin unearthed
Ira and Charlie Louvin’s tight harmonies and impeccable songwriting skills made them a creative force that thrived after the rise of rock ‘n’ roll forced many in country music to change with the times. Eventually, the pair became a guiding light to such tradition-honoring rockers as the folk-crazed Byrds and fellow harmonizers The Eagles.
The 29 unearthed demos on Love and Wealth: The Lost Recordings offer a raw sampling of the two creative geniuses’ peak material from 1951-‘56. By no stretch are the Louvin Brothers’ proper singles and albums overproduced, but there’s still a charm to hearing a no-frills set of songs that simply capture Ira—the coolest mandolin player aside from Marty Stuart—and his guitar-playing brother Charlie as they share their latest compositions with Nashville taste-makers.
The Louvin Brothers catalog exemplifies hillbilly music—a proto-country offshoot of the South’s traditional folk ballads and hymns. Such old-time material included more than just murder ballads and love songs. Humor suited country music back then, too, as heard on “It’s All Off,” “Unpucker,” “Coo, Coo, Coo” and other demos that poke fun at regional norms without an air of condescension. Each novelty song serves as a nice counter-balance to the hellfire and brimstone expectations met elsewhere on the compilation.
Typical Louvin Brothers compositions represented the musical and cultural norms of white Southerners, so songs that told different stories stuck out like sore thumbs. Take for example “Red Hen Boogie.” It’s a rhythm and blues song that sounds more like something that would’ve emanated from Atlanta’s Royal Peacock night club than a front porch picking session on Sand Mountain, Alabama. To put it more bluntly, it’s a Southern fantasy that, like the works of Louvin Brothers fan Elvis Presley, clearly acknowledges African-American influences.
The other odd duck on the first LP, “Discontented Cowboy,” departs the South for Hollywood. It’s a singing cowboy song, comparable to the familiar works of Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. Considering it’s a demo recording, maybe the pair sought an opportunity to cash in on a soundtrack cut? Regardless of why it exists, it serves now as proof that the Louvins could have soared as collaborators with someone like Autry back when he and his horse Champion were the silver screen’s greatest superhero duo.
While secular country music defines the first two sides of wax, gospel selections dominate the second LP. Such Biblical analogies serve as many curious listeners’ entry point to the Louvins. After all, it’s easy to discover the duo via the literal tire fire on the cover of Satan is Real or the Byrds’ interpretation of “The Christian Life” from Sweetheart of the Rodeo.
A fan theory, of sorts, figures that Ira chose a life of drinking and carousing over the call to preach. Country-gospel songs by the wayward layman share the convictions about salvation and Godly living that he might’ve brought to a Sunday morning service. The old, familiar Louvin tune “Preach the Gospel” backs this up while shaming Ira’s battle with the bottle. Elsewhere on the compilation, he presents Biblical truths in modern terms, with the clever “Insured Beyond the Grave” sounding like the lyrical equivalent of a pun-filled yet well-intentioned Chick tract.
In all, the compilation provides longtime fans with a bevy of unheard material that complements Bear Family Records’ exhaustive 1992 box set Close Harmony. For new listeners, it’s as good an entry point as past compilations because it captures the brothers’ topical and vocal range while digging to the roots of modern country, gospel and rock ‘n’ roll.