Wednesday, October 29, 2008

NMW Spotlight : Louvin Up Close

I thought I'd break tradition for this post and give you a little glimpse of my alter ego and the adventures of a performing songwriter. For my regular readers : don't worry, we'll be back to the chopping block next week. But for tonight Ninety Mile Wind goes "backstage" in Bethlehem, PA. for a first hand report on my show at Godfrey Daniels with the legendary Charlie Louvin.

The Silver Eagle was parked across the street when Larry Ahearn and I arrived for sound check. Larry is a manager who likes to travel with his acts, so he almost always delivers me to the door of my gig and makes sure sound check comes together on schedule. Charlie Louvin's band had traveled down from Woodstock NY where they'd done Levon Helm's Midnight Ramble show the night before. The bus's engine was still idling when we pulled up, indicating everyone was either sleeping or taking care of other business on board.

We faced some tough competition finding an audience for this show. The fourth game of the World Series was being played only 65 miles away, and The Who were also performing in Philly. But we were relieved to learn that the house was half sold out and walk ups were expected. Still, I'd figured Charlie would draw more people than the number of advance tickets we'd sold. Ramona at Godfrey Daniels gave us the same lament we've been hearing everywhere lately : show attendance is off by 30-40%, and it's the economy stupid.

Louvin's band sound checked first. When everything was set, Charlie got off the bus and came into Godfrey's wearing a gold Pittsburgh Steelers hat that Levon had given him the night before. He took the stage and exchanged a few comments with his eldest boy, Sonny, who plays rhythm guitar in the band. I heard Charlie say, "Where?" and he turned to squint in my direction. Then he stepped off the stage and came over to greet me. I introduced myself, not realizing Louvin is still as sharp as a pistol at age 81. "Yes, I remember you," he said, "we spoke on the phone a while back about your House song. Boy, you didn't leave nothing outta that one, that's a good song!" I should explain that Charlie cut This Old House (written by Thom Schuyler and myself) a few years back on a CD that's unfortunately now out of print.

Louvin and his band finished their sound check and I set up for mine with my percussionist and long time friend Tommy Geddes. Charlie was hanging around in the lobby when I decided to run through This Old House with Tommy. I had my eyes shut, and as I got to the second verse a raspy tenor voice joined me in harmony. I looked over and there was Charlie on stage next to me with a cup of coffee. He followed my phrasing almost perfectly and nailed the second chorus. When the song ended he leaned over and said with a grin, "Boy, you should be killed before you multiply!" I laughed and told him to feel free to join me for the song during the evening's set if he felt up to it. "I've got this head cold, but maybe I will".

After sound check we sat and talked about guitars until Charlie had to do a phone interview with a radio station in Australia. I decided to eavesdrop as he answered the questions that were coming from the interviewer. His eyes twinkled as he spoke about his storied past.

"Yes, that's right, we did a show in Alabama back then and Elvis was the opening act." A pause. "Well, yes, I met Hank a few times, I didn't really know him well, but I knew him." Another pause. "Well we used to harmonize all the time, we learned all the church music, shape note singing and the songs in The Golden Harp [a hymn collection published in 1868]" Then a longer pause and a sigh. "Oh yes, every time I sing I still hear Ira's voice singing his harmony parts." The interviewer asked him about his name. "Well it was Loudermilk. We was cousins of John D's, you know. So we took the L-O-U part, same as Loudermilk, and added the "V-I-N" from the VIN number on a car and came up with Louvin." He looked at me with a grin and winked, then spoke into the phone again, "Well sir, I'm in Bethlehem PA, where Jesus is from."

I went outside to get some air before the show started and found Charlie's bass player Mitchell Brown doing the same. We had a conversation about the bus that was still idling across the street. "That bus is a lease. Charlie's bus got totaled in a head on collision in New Jersey a few weeks ago," he said. Recalling that Ira Louvin died in a car accident, I shuddered and asked, "Was anybody hurt?" Mitchell held out a stiff forearm, "I broke my arm. Charlie was fine. He had an insurance check in his hand the next day and bought something, I don't know what."

The show started at 7pm. I was introduced by Steve, who also does sound at Godfrey Daniels. "Wow, lots of gray heads here tonight," I said. "We like that. Now, if you forget where you are there's a big sign behind me that'll remind you!"
I did my usual 30 minute opening act set.
Here's the song list:

You're The Power

Even A Cowboy Can Dream
The Real Game
Where I Used To Have A Heart
Sugarcane Street
This Old House
If He Came Back Again

Larry was sitting behind Charlie on the benches in the rear of the room. Apparently Charlie slid forward on his seat as if to stand up and come to the stage twice during This Old House, but decided against it. Ah well, I can still say I once harmonized on stage with the great Charlie Louvin. After the show he caught my arm in the lobby and leaned into my ear, "Don't worry, I won't upstage you!" he said chuckling.

Louvin's set kicked off with a rousing version of "Worried Man Blues". He quickly followed with some Carter family and Delmore Brothers tunes.
The band was tight, with lead guitarist Joe Cook stepping out in nearly every song to display a dazzling array of Telecaster tricks and hot licks. Kevin Kathey laid down a solid backbeat, although he was playing somewhat restrained to keep the volume low in the small room. Mitchell and Sonny locked into the groove.

Louvin's voice was weak in the mix at first. The combination of the slightly overpowered sound system and his head cold made his voice seem a bit frail. But the set picked up energy and the sound came together, and by the time he sang "This Damn Pen" (a great ballad he'd cut with Willie Nelson) his weathered tenor took command of the stage. He also gave me another shout out for This Old House, "I don't know how many times I've driven by an old abandoned house and wondered what kinda stories it could tell. He even got the extra key in that song!"

His repartee with the crowd was humorous and unaffected. He ditched political correctness at one point saying, "I'm gonna do this slow song. Normally I'd get down off the stage and go out there to get me some beaver to dance with, but not tonight."

Charlie Louvin has earned his accolades. His influence on country and bluegrass harmony reverberates down to today in the work of younger artists such as Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. It can even be found in the seminal country rock of Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris. It's a legacy that few artists of his generation can match. One wonders what will happen to country music when the last of these old giants is gone. One thing's for sure, they aren't making any more of 'em.

Thanks to Larry Ahearn and Tom Hampton for the photos.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the departure, Craig... great shots, and account. Really enjoyed reading through this a couple of times.

Tim McMullen said...

I don't wish it often (you guys have too much weather), but occasionally I do wish I had easier access to the other side of the country. What a great depiction of a great night. The Louvin Brothers set the country bar for that tight, family harmony. Not just the Everly's or Emmylou's duets, but most of the country rock harmonies, Burritos to Eagles, owe a debt to Charlie and Ira.

Like your blog on Jack Keller, this story gives us a glimpse of that "old professional" to which your career turns have introduced you, and to which you would have us aspire. The occasional "adventures in performing" or "backstage blogs" are very entertaining and very welcome.
Thanks for writing!

Anonymous said...

It's great learning about songwriting in your blog, and just as nice to hear about what you are doing too. I was just thinking the other day that we get all this great advice from you but don't always get to hear about what you're doing as a performer. Thanks for letting us backstage.