Hear It Before You Die
In the book 1,001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die various critics contribute a list of what they consider to be the most essential albums ever made. The list is naturally heavily laden with rock, given that rock and roll helped move the album into the forefront. Country albums are few and far between on the list; in fact, only two country albums represent the decade of the 1950s: Marty Robbins' Gunfighter Ballads & Trail Songs, and the 1956 Louvin Brothers classic Tragic Songs of Life.
It Lives Up to Its Name
In his massive biography of Steve Goodman, Facing the Music, author Clay Eals relayed a comical moment after Goodman had produced his longtime friend John Prine's 1978 classic Bruised Orange. Goodman told Prine that the songs (mostly dealing, implicitly or explicitly, with divorce, as Prine had just gone through a divorce) were so depressing that the album should have included a razor blade in the package so the listener could slit their wrists.
One could make a similar claim about Tragic Songs of Life. The album definitely lives up to the "tragic" part in its title, with most of the songs about death, heartbreak, and what may well be country music's first (if not only) double suicide song.
That may not sound like a fun way to spend quality music time, but it's nothing new. As Elton John once sang, sad songs really do say so much. It's not the bouncy, upbeat "I Want to Hold Your Hand" that people cover from the Beatles, it's Paul McCartney's lost love lament "Yesterday" (which is reportedly the most covered song in popular music history). What's the biggest single in U.S. chart history: the joyful "Paloma Blanca" from the George Baker Selection, or Whitney Houston's cover of Dolly Parton's bittersweet breakup song "I Will Always Love You"? There's something about sad songs that resonates with the listener, if nothing more than to remind someone, "Hey, cheer up. Your life isn't this bad!"
Perfectors of Country Harmony
I always say that the Louvin Brothers didn't invent harmony, but they certainly perfected it. Growing up in the Sand Mountain region of northeast Alabama, their boyhood idols were Alton and Rabon Delmore, a brother duet from the other side of Sand Mountain who became the Grand Ole Opry's and country music's first "superstar" brother duet. Several other brother acts followed in the success of the Delmore Brothers, including the close harmony duet of Bill and Earl Bolick, who billed themselves as the Blue Sky Boys.
No one, however, could match the Louvin Brothers, thanks to their secret weapon: Ira Louvin's stunning high tenor. Over the decades many have tried, but almost no one, has succeeded in matching Ira's voice. In an interview in the early 1990's Charlie Louvin said that the only people he considered to have come close to his brother's voice were Rex Gosdin (brother of Vern Gosdin), and Charles Whistein (who was half of a bluegrass/traditional country duet called the Whitstein Brothers and frequently sang tenor with Louvin).
By the time they released Tragic Songs of Life in 1956 the Louvin Brothers were longtime veterans of country music. Born Ira and Charlie Loudermilk, Ira, who was 4F after a back injury in Army boot camp, changed their names to Louvin while working with Charlie Monroe's Kentucky Partners while Charlie was serving in the Army Air Corps in World War II. They made the rounds on several radio stations in the late 40's, including a brief stint on the classic "Midday Merry-Go-Round" at Knoxville's WNOX. They had three brief record deals (Apollo, Decca, and MGM) before being signed to Capitol Records, exclusively as a country gospel act.
In 1955 the brothers told Capitol Records A&R man Ken Nelson that they wanted to record a "secular" country song. Nelson balked, claiming they already had a guitar-and-mandolin brother duet on the label (Jim and Jesse, who would later become bluegrass legends), and the label didn't want "copycats." They persisted and Nelson agreed, but with a warning: if their country attempt flopped, they would lose their record deal.
Their career hung in the balance on the strength of one song. That song, "When I Stop Dreaming," became a massive hit, a country classic (it has been covered over 200 times, including a 2015 rendition by rock icon Don Henley of the Eagles), and established the Louvin Brothers as stars.
Saving the Best for First
In the 1950s it was rather uncommon for acts, especially country acts, to record an album in the manner in which we think of "albums" today. Most acts would record two songs (an "A" side, or "plug" side, the song that was going to be pushed as a possible hit; and a "B" side, as 45s had two sides and the other side couldn't be empty), then hit the road to promote the new song. The B side had to be strong in case the DJ accidentally played the wrong side of the record (which is how several songs became hits). After the song began sliding back down the charts, or if it didn't generate interest, the act would record two more songs, then repeat the process. If they had enough success with the songs, they would record what is generally referred to as "filler" -- lesser songs, or covers of other popular songs at the time -- and the record label would release an album.
Given this, it is quite surprising that Tragic Songs of Life was released early in the Louvins' career (this was their first album) and did not contain either of their big hits at the time (the aforementioned "When I Stop Dreaming" or their only #1 hit, "I Don't Believe You've Met My Baby"). Additionally, it was loosely considered a "concept" album of sorts, not necessarily telling one story (the way the Eagles' Desperado did) but centered around the theme of loss. While the album wasn't a big seller (most country albums at that time weren't: country music's first million-selling album came along two decades later, with the Willie/Waylon/Jessi/Tompall album Wanted! The Outlaws), it has endured as one of the great classic albums in country music history. Its inclusion in a book that is about 80% rock albums shows that it has endured in all of music history.
What makes an album filled with such depressing songs so memorable? For one thing, the songs are splendid. Yes, they're sad ("A Tiny Broken Heart"), and even graphically violent ("Katie Dear," "Knoxville Girl"); however, like a good movie that depicts similar subject matter, the quality of the songs is what elevates the album to "classic" status.
And, of course, there's the harmony. There are simply no words to adequately describe the harmonies of Ira and Charlie Louvin. Much like Babe Ruth's home runs (which were dubbed "Ruthian"), the only way to explain their harmonies is they are "Louvinesque." On Tragic Songs they took the wistful "Kentucky," a Karl Davis song covered by countless acts, and completely transformed it, to the point that the subsequent versions are compared to the Louvins' version.
Also in that category of oft-recorded songs that are now almost inseparably associated with the Louvin Brothers is the traditional murder ballad "Knoxville Girl." The song dates back to at least the 19th century in Scotland, according to Charles K. Wolfe's biography of the Louvin Brothers included in the 8-CD box set Close Harmony. The song had been recorded prior to the Louvins' version, including a version by the Blue Sky Boys in 1936 and a 1946 rendition by the Cope Brothers on King Records. The earliest recorded country version is by Gid Tanner and Riley Puckett, from 1924.
Ironically, in the "battle of the charts" with the song "Knoxville Girl," the 1959 rendition by the Wilburn Brothers actually charted higher than the Louvin Brothers' 1958 version. The Wilburns' rendition was shorter (removing the middle portion of the song where the narrator returns home after killing his girl) and made it to #18 on the Billboard country singles chart, beating the Louvins' peak position by one place.
Yet, despite all of the people who have recorded this song over the years, it is the Louvin Brothers who are most closely affiliated with the song. On Knoxville's "Country Music Tour" of Gay Street the sign referencing the song "Knoxville Girl" has a photo of the Louvins as its backdrop.
In an interview with WSM DJ and country music historian Eddie Stubbs in the early 2000s, Charlie Louvin admitted that he didn't necessarily care for this song. "It never explains why he killed her," Louvin complained. Indeed, the reasoning behind the murder is speculative at best, with the very subtle implication being the woman was cheating on her boyfriend ("go down, go down, you Knoxville girl with dark and roving eyes"), or maybe even pregnant. As morals were stricter at the time, if the woman was indeed cheating on her "true love" the song couldn't explicitly say that because songs were banned for being explicit about things such as sex and pregnancy (but no objections to the violent murder in the song).
The classic Louvin Brothers' rendition
Ira Louvin battled alcohol problems for most of his life. His whiskey-fueled temper caused the professional breakup of the Louvin Brothers in 1963. Two years later, as he seemed to be getting his life under control, he was killed (ironically, by a drunk driver) in a car wreck near Williamsburg, Missouri on the way home from a show in Kansas City. Charlie had a long, successful solo career, nominated for a "Best New Country Artist" Grammy in 1964. The Louvin Brothers were inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2001, the Nashville Songwriters' Hall of Fame in 1979 and their home state's Alabama Music Hall of Fame in 1991. Charlie died of pancreatic cancer in 2011.
Tragic Songs of Life stands as one of country music's greatest albums because the songs tell the sorrowful side of the human condition. The harmonies of Ira and Charlie Louvin keep the listener enthralled with their beauty...no matter how tragic the songs of life are.
Tragic Songs of Life - Louvin Brothers
Song By Song
Kentucky (written by Karl Davis; duet): Karl Davis of Karl & Harty wrote this ode to his home state (now an official state song), and the famous recordings include their version, the Blue Sky Boys', and the Osborne Brothers' bluegrass take. No one has matched the mastery of this recording, highlighted by Ira's tender mandolin in the background mimicking an innocent child frolicking in a Kentucky field.
I'll Be All Smiles Tonight (written by A.P. Carter; duet): this old Carter Family song, written by a man from the perspective of the woman who sees her supposed love at a dance with a new girl, features exceptional tenor work from Ira.
Let Her Go, God Bless Her (traditional; lead vocals by Ira): one of the happy, upbeat songs on the album (in fact, the only happy, upbeat song on the album) has Ira playing a terrific mandolin lead and singing this song about moving on from a failed love. The verses in the song have been adapted into several other songs (including the use of "Sometime I live in the country, sometime I live in town, but sometime I take a good notion to jump in the river and drown" in "Goodnight Irene").
What Is Home Without Love (traditional; lead vocals by Ira): the old theme of marriage for money, not love is brought to the forefront in this old song. Although the lyrics can be found in a 1903 lyric book (Chas. K. Harris' Complete Songster: 150 Latest Popular Songs), the only noteworthy version of the song is this rendition.
A Tiny Broken Heart (written by Ira Louvin, Charlie Louvn, and Eddie Hill; duet): an adult song about a seven-year-old who becomes distraught when he sees that his young girlfriend next door is moving away.
In the Pines (traditional; duet): one of country music's most-covered songs, people from Bill Monroe in bluegrass to Nirvana in rock have done a version of this under varying titles (such as "The Longest Train" or "Where Did You Sleep Last Night"). The highlight of the Louvins' rendition is their mournful train whistle harmony after each chorus.
Alabama (written by Ira Louvin, Charlie Louvin, and Eddie Hill; duet): the first song the Louvin Brothers ever recorded, in 1947, what this stunning song Ira wrote for the brothers' home state. The imagery describing the "fields of sericea, potatoes, and corn," and "your goldenrod flowers and the 'welcome home' sign hanging over the gate" makes the listener feel warm. In 1966 this was named an official state song of Alabama.
Katie Dear (written by Bill Bolick; duet): Romeo and Juliet adapted for country music with harmony, this may be the only double suicide song in country music history. Similar to the Shakespearean tragedy, the mismatched lovers cannot wed because Katie's parents won't allow it, and they are downright homicidal about the notion ("by his side there's a silver dagger to slay the one that I love best"). Willie, then kills himself over the fact that they cannot marry, followed by Katie stabbing herself with the knife Willie had just used. Although the Blue Sky Boys' Bill Bolick is listed as the songwriter, variations of this song predate the 1936 Blue Sky Boys' recording under different names.
My Brother's Will (written by Ken Nelson; duet/Ira solo on bridges): probably the most peculiar song on the album (written by their producer, Ken Nelson), this song tells of a man who is accidentally shot by his brother on a hunting trip, then he spends half the song going over his will that he's conveniently carrying in his pocket ("he gave me a small piece of paper, the will he had made for this day"). Despite the disjointed story line in the song the Louvins deliver it with conviction.
Take the News to Mother (written by Joe Callahan, Bill Callahan, and W.R. Caloway; duet): given that this song was on an album in 1956, it's easy to believe that the references to "the boys in France" who "were fighting to save their noble flag, save their flag or give their lives all for their country and home" are to World War II. Actually, it's a song about World War I. The Callahan Brothers' version of this song that they wrote dates to 1935.
Mary of the Wild Moor (traditional; duet): probably the most troubling "tragic song" on the album. Charlie said in a concert in 1992 that women who got pregnant out of wedlock were dealt with "differently" in olden days This is the tale of a most brutal way: a woman goes to another town to have her baby (which was common and continues to be a theme in songs: see Bruce Hornsby & the Range's "The Valley Road" or Tammy Wynette's version of the John Prine song "Unwed Fathers") then returns home. Her father, upset that she has "shamed" him, refuses to let her in the house...and she freezes to death in the cold.