At 81, after more than 65 years of touring, country and gospel legend Charlie Louvin is still on the road. Charlie got his start playing guitar and singing close harmony with his mandolin-picking brother Ira. The Louvin Brothers mesmerized audiences with songs about lost love and brutal murder, black sin and Jesus' sweet redemption. They made the Grand Old Opry and headlined shows across the country before Ira's drinking broke the duo apart. Two years later, in 1965, Ira Louvin died in a car crash, hit head on by a drunk driver. Charlie Louvin never stopped recording and performing.
Today, having cut a string of four well-received albums and toured with acts like Cake and Lucinda Williams, Charlie Louvin is connecting with a new generation of fans. And his 2008 gospel collection Steps to Heaven (Tompkins Square Records, 2008) has been nominated for a Grammy. Recently, I spoke with Charlie about the Louvin Brothers, his solo career, and what it's like to play music for the great-great grandchildren of your original fans.

Can you tell me about the first time you ever got paid to play music?
That would be easy. It was back in 1941, so I was 14 years year old and my brother was 17. We worked at a county fair down in Piscah, Alabama. We worked on what, at the time, they called a "flying city." Today they call it a merry-go-round. But it didn't have any power to make it go around. They put a mule about 50 feet out with a rope and he'd walk around. And we stood there in the middle of it. [People got on] and we would play two songs and they would stop and unload the people from the flying city and they would charge people a nickel apiece. And once an hour, we'd get a five-minute break. I think they just did that to let the mule rest. And if you was fast enough you could go down to the stand and get a nickel Coke and almost drink it and then you'd be playing again.
At that time, the WPA was going strong, one of Roosevelt's "give everybody a job making little rocks out of big ones" building highways. And my Daddy, when he didn't have to work the farm, would work that, and they paid him fifty cents a day. And there wasn't none of this "eight till four." It was daylight till dark. And in the summertime, it would be about 14 hours. So he made fifty cents. And here, we worked about a total of seven or eight hours and got paid three dollars apiece. But we found out there was more to it than that. Our burning desire was to be on the Grand Old Opry. That took 14 years and a lot of heartaches. And finally we made it in 1955.
I read that in order to do that, you had to audition ten times.
Probably. We were winning all the awards that the gospel field had to offer, but you still don't make much money that way because I'm not a beggar, and when you play churches, it's pretty close to begging. You want an offering, and the preacher embarrasses you by saying "These boys could be working in a beer joint and making money, and you didn't give enough, so we're gonna pass the plate again."
Finally, I called our A&R man Ken Nelson, and asked him if he knew anybody at the Opry and he said "I know Jack Stapp, he's the boss." So Ken called Jack Stapp, and I don't know what was said, but evidently, Jack Stapp stuttered. And so Ken said "If you don't want 'em, the Ozark Jubilee does." Of course, that was kind of a white lie. And Jack said, "No, we don't need anybody else defecting to Springfield, Missouri. So they start this Friday night."
That was on a Tuesday, I remember. And things got a world better. Maybe six months after we was on the Opry, we talked the record label into allowing us to mix the music. Half secular and half gospel. And our first [single,] "When I Stop Dreaming," turned our world around. We could work anywhere. In late '55, and early '56, Elvis Presley opened for the Louvin Brothers. A year or so later, Johnny Cash opened for the Louvin Brothers. Time changes everything. They both became superstars. But we had a good run at it.
What do you think it was that drew people to the Louvin Brothers' music?
I think it was the songs. We sang about life. Life is certainly no bed of roses, and it's not always easy. I don't care if you're rich or poor, or a banker or a bum. Life is not kind to you sometimes. And the songs could take you to a place that if you didn't have money or even friends you could acquire them…When someone asks me, "did you think when you and your brother were singing those songs, they would still be around sixty years later?" And my answer is always the same: "Lord no. We didn't think of that. We were only trying to make a living." It's just fortunate that the songs have lived, which proves that it was the songs all along.
You were in the Grand Old Opry, and you could play anywhere. But you had some hard times.
Well, Elvis changed everything. The landscape of music. He put a lot of people out of business…So our gospel music carried us through. Sure, it cut down how much work you could do, or even how much money you could make. But it was still sufficient to continue on, and we did.
Eventually, you and your brother split up.
That's correct. My brother was a drinker, as is true of a lot of duos, especially brother duos. And I just didn't know how to handle a drinker, me being a "non." And it got so bad that we…we did bad shows. He insisted on doing the emcee work, and then when you get loaded, you aren't good at nothin'.
In this business as in any business…if you build a house, the person who buys the house, if it's a bad house, they aren't gonna keep quiet about it. They're gonna tell everybody. And first thing you know, the news will get around and nobody will want you to build a house. That's what happened to the shows. The first thing you know, one promoter would be talking another, and he'd say "If you want trouble, hire the Louvin Brothers." Well, a promoter don't need trouble. He's got enough trouble promoting and getting the people there. He don't need the entertainers to give him trouble. So when that news got around, it seriously hurt the act.
How was it different for you to continue on your own?
Oh, it was totally different. I didn't even know I could do it, to tell you the truth. But I'd been in the music biz at least 23 years at the time, and I didn't have another trade, and I wanted to give it a shot. The Capitol Records man allowed me to do that. Our very first record went very close to number one and built my career up to the point where my wife could raise three children while I was on the road. Today, I don't hit the road as much as I did back then. Last year, we worked 100 days, about 27 percent of the days of the year. So we did pretty good.