When I was growing up the Grammys meant less than zero to me and my friends. We paid them no attention whatsoever.
Here’s an example of why. In 1965 some of the nominees for Best Folk Recording were Bob Dylan, Harry Belafonte, Miriam Makeba, Woody Guthrie and Peter, Paul & Mary.
And the Grammy went to Gale Garnett for “We’ll Sing in the Sunshine,” which was more pop than folk and definitely lightweight.
Over the years, however, the Grammys — which will be telecast this Sunday, Feb. 12, 2012 — have grown up and have made more relevant choices.
Beginning back in 1962, the Grammys did a better job with its first four selections for Lifetime Achievement Award: Crosby, Sinatra, Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald.
In the 1970s the Grammys only bestowed the Lifetime Achievement accolade three times, to Elvis, Louis Armstrong and Mahalia Jackson.
But starting in 1986, realizing that there were many more performers deserving of Lifetime kudos, the Grammys began naming multiple honorees every year, a mix of current artists and those who have passed on.
This year, for example, the Grammys have singled out the Allman Brothers Band, Glen Campbell, Antonio Carlos Jobim, George Jones, the Memphis Horns, Diana Ross and Gil Scott-Heron as “performers who, during their lifetimes, have made creative contributions of outstanding artistic significance to the field of recording.”
Thus far the Grammys have recognized 142 individuals and groups for their lifetimes of achievement, including such disparate talents as Cab Calloway, the Carter Family, Pablo Casals, John Coltrane, Perry Como and Cream.
Here’s a trio I suggest be included in next year’s group for this prestigious honor: Emmylou Harris, Gram Parsons and the Louvin Brothers.
I thought of this group this week as I devoured a new book: “Satan is Real,” by Charlie Louvin with Benjamin Whitmer. Its subtitle is “The Ballad of the Louvin Brothers.”
The brothers were the massively talented alcoholic Ira Louvin — who died, ironically, when the car he was driving was struck by a car driven by a drunk driver in 1965 — and Charlie Louvin, the book’s author, who died at age 83 in January 2011, two months after he and Whitmer finished the book. The book was finally published last month by the Igniter Literary Group division of HarperCollins.
How talented were the Louvin Brothers? The authoritative Grove Dictionary of American Music says they were “probably the greatest traditional country duo in history.” Kris Kristofferson nails it when he says, “The legendary Louvin Brothers’ hauntingly beautiful Appalachian blood harmony is truly one of the treasures of American music.”
How crazy was the life of Ira Louvin? Once, when he and his third wife, Faye, were drunk in their bedroom, and Ira was trying to strangle her with a telephone cord, she managed to grab a small gun that Ira kept under his pillow, and shot him in the arm. And then in the chest. And then three more times in the back. And then, “for good measure,” once more in the front.
As Charlie writes, “Lucky for him, none of the bullets went deep enough to hit his vital organs.”
The day after the shooting, Charlie says he heard an item about the incident on Paul Harvey’s national radio newscast: Harvey said, “Ira Louvin and his wife were up drinking last night, and she shot him six times with a .22 pistol. Then she told the police, ‘If the blankety-blank don’t die, I’ll shoot him again.’ And then Harvey gave one of his little pauses like he did and continued, ‘And he ain’t dead yet.’ “
Ira recovered and lived for two more years before he was killed in the auto accident.
By the time of the accident, Ira’s alcoholism had so taken its toll on Charlie that they were no longer singing together.
But before that happened they made beautiful, haunting harmonies. As Charlie writes, “It baffled a lot of people how we could change parts without nudging or winking at each other. [Ira would] take the high lead and I’d do the low harmony under it, and he knew exactly when my part would get too high for me just like I knew when his would get too low for him, and we could change in the middle of a word.”
Part of the reason they could do that, Charlie adds, “is that we were brothers. There’s no one that knows your weaknesses like a brother.”
Later in the book Charlie talks about Ira’s biggest weakness, his drinking. Ira was the older of the two brothers and took most of the beatings from their father when they were kids.
Writes Charlie, “People always said that it was like Ira was trying to get even with somebody when he drank, and maybe Papa was the one he was trying to get even with. And maybe he was trying to get even with Mama and me a little, too, for never stopping those beatings. And maybe we deserved it.”
A lot of us probably would not know of the Louvin Brothers today if weren’t for Emmylou Harris, who has championed their music during her entire career.
I’ve seen Emmylou Harris perform many times. Even got to meet her once. Back 30-35 years ago, she and her pal Linda Ronstadt gave an afternoon outdoor concert at UCLA. As I was leaving the show I went by a room in a building whose door was open, and I saw Harris inside presiding over a small after-party. I went into the room and immediately was asked to leave by a PR person. I begged to stay and he finally said, “OK, but under one condition. That you don’t try to talk to Ms. Harris.” I readily agreed and the moment I saw that he was distracted on the other side of the room I made a beeline for Emmylou.
I said, “Hi. I’m a big fan. I just want to thank you for keeping alive the music of the Louvin Brothers. And of Gram Parsons.” She was about to say something in reply when the PR thug came up to me, firmly grabbed me by the shoulder and threw me out, saying, “Jesus, I told you not to talk to her.”
Harris learned about the Louvin Brothers primarily when, as she has said, she basically learned about country music from Gram Parsons. The late Parsons, himself a legendary figure in country-folk-rock, discovered Harris when she was singing in Washington, D.C., years ago, and they sang together for a short period. Parsons tragically died of a drug overdose at age 26 in 1973.
As Charlie Louvin writes in his book, “One guy I probably owe as much to as anybody is Gram Parsons. Unfortunately, I never got to meet him, but he was a Louvin Brothers nut. When Ira and I were playing with Elvis on that one tour [with him] that we did, we stopped in Waycross, Georgia, and Gram, who was only nine years old at the time, was in the audience. He went on to work with three or four rock and roll groups, and every time he’d con ‘em into playing a Louvin Brothers song or two. … He was responsible for introducing the Louvin Brothers music to a great number of people. His first recruit was Emmylou Harris, and I can’t say how much she’s helped me over the years.”
In fact, Charlie and Harris did some duets. And an album released nine years ago, “Livin’, Lovin’, Losin’ — Songs of the Louvin Brothers,” which featured Harris and a plethora of other artists, won a Grammy as Best Country Album.
As he neared the end of his life, Charlie said he was always asked whether he and Ira ever thought their songs would still be played and loved 60 years after they were written.
His answer was nah, “we were merely trying to make a living, that’s all we were trying to do.#”
In his book Charlie Louvin writes that “I think my favorite song on the [gospel] album ['Satan Is Real'] is ‘Are You Afraid To Die?” In fact, it’s one of my favorite Louvin Brothers songs ever.” Here’s Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell, accompanied by Albert Lee, on the Louvin Brother’s classic secular song “If I Could Only Win Your Love”
Gram Parsons recorded a number of Louvin Brothers songs, but I’ve chosen to post a song influenced by the Louvin Brothers lyrically, structurally and harmonically but written and performed by Parsons and Emmylou Harris. It’s called “In My Hour of Darkness” from Parsons’ posthumously released album “Grievous Angel.” The third person accompanying Parsons and Harris in the harmonies is Linda Ronstadt.