A country music legend stopped by Ashland Coffee & Tea last week, and hardly anybody showed up.
Having recently turned 80, Charlie Louvin, one half of the classic country/gospel duo The Louvin Brothers, who were Grand Ole Opry regulars in the '50s, brought his four-piece band to the intimate, railroad-side club in support of his new self-titled album.
There were only about 40 people in attendance at the Aug. 22 concert, likely for three reasons: (1) There was scant coverage in Richmond media; (2) the cover was $25; and (3) it was Wednesday night.
But those who did show up were treated to a warm, enjoyable show from a wizened singer who, although pitchy and out-of-breath at times, still entertained the crowd with his enthusiasm, funny jokes and authentic mastery and understanding of gorgeous old-school country material.
Although his brother Ira died in a car wreck in 1965, Louvin has soldiered on through the decades with a number of solo records and a few hits. Many came to know the Louvins' music after singer Gram Parsons recorded a cover of "The Christian Life" on The Byrds' 1968 masterpiece, "Sweetheart of the Rodeo."
More recently, rock bands and members of the so-called alt-country scene (which can seem like a throwback to traditional country in many ways) have cited Louvin as a major influence, some bringing him on tour as an opening act.
The Louvin Brothers were inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2001, and Charlie's new album features an impressive array of guest artists, including Elvis Costello, George Jones, Jeff Tweedy (Wilco), Will Oldham, Tom T. Hall and Bobby Bare Sr., all performing Louvin Brothers classics and covers by other legendary country acts.
Wearing a white Stetson hat and proper suit, Louvin was backed by a steady, nonintrusive band that included his eldest son, Sonny, on acoustic guitar, Bob Saxton playing beautiful runs on a big hollow-body electric, Kevin Cathy on drums and Brent Wilson on electric bass and singing high harmony backup.
First-set highlights included the classic "Atomic Power," the humorous Bill Anderson tune "Must You Throw Dirt in My Face" from his new album, a moving cover of Kris Kristofferson's ballad "Please Don't Tell Me How the Story Ends," and a gospel section that kicked off with "The Christian Life" during which Louvin stood singing with intense focus and emotion. All night he seemed happy to be onstage with a microphone, swaying back and forth and cracking jokes, many at the expense of seated guitarist Saxton ("He's having a senior moment").
When his voice got too raspy, Louvin asked the sound guy for more reverb. When that didn't work, he sent someone out of the club to procure a bottle of Worcestershire sauce, which he later chugged on stage as a shooter to help clear his throat. The bassist joked that the empty glass would soon be on eBay.
During the set break Louvin sauntered outside, leaned against a car and smoked a cigarette with a few members of the audience.
The second set featured more great covers of The Monroe Brothers, The Delmore Brothers and Bill Anderson, a great version of the creepy Appalachian murder ballad "Knoxville Girl" (also included on the new album) and a stirring cover of Merle Haggard's "The Way I Am."
Both sets were well-paced, filled with interesting background stories, and Louvin had the crowd eating out of his hand with his down-home, country-boy humor ("This music stuff is like crossing the street: You gotta see sharp or you be flat"). Even though his singing at times seemed strained, it's apparent that he still has a deep passion for traditional country and enough vocal ability to occasionally knock one out of the park.
One of the strongest crowd reactions came during the beautifully tragic Louvin Brothers classic, "When I Stop Dreaming," which he sings with Elvis Costello on the new record (it's also covered by Emmylou Harris on her "Luxury Liner" album). The evocative lyrics and their heartfelt delivery were a definite peak of the evening:
The worst that I've ever been hurt in my life
The first time I ever have wanted to die
Was the night when you told me you loved someone new
And you asked me if I could forget
When I stop dreaming
That's when I'll stop loving you
Don't worry about Charlie, though he's been married to the same woman for nearly 50 years. Also, his crowds should be getting a lot bigger in the next few weeks, when he begins opening shows for Lucinda Williams. You can catch them at the Charlottesville Pavilion Sept. 25. S
Charlie Louvin plays with Lucinda Williams at the Charlottesville Pavilion Tuesday, Sept. 25, at 7 p.m. The concert is to benefit the U.Va. Cancer Center. Tickets are $29.50-$75. Call (877) CPAV-TIX or visit www.charlottesvillepavilion.com.