"I was going to call these albums 'Heaven' and 'Hell,' " Charlie Louvin says in his smooth Southern drawl.
He's talking about his two most recent projects, which he recorded last year at the age of 81: the gospel collection "Steps to Heaven" and the self-explanatory "Charlie Louvin Sings Murder Ballads and Disaster Songs." But he might as well be describing everything he's ever recorded—as half of one of country's great harmony duos, as a Nashville star in the '60s and more recently in a late-career revival that's returned him to his roots in old American music about salvation and sin.
As much as any of country's early acts, the Louvin Brothers—Charlie and his sibling Ira—walked the line between Saturday nights and Sunday mornings on songs like "The Christian Life," "The Great Atomic Power" and "Satan Is Real." Ira, who felt called to the pulpit but drawn to the bottle, died in 1965. However, the Louvin Brothers found an audience among rock fans thanks to covers of their songs by tastemakers like Emmylou Harris, Elvis Costello and Jeff Tweedy.
In 2006 Louvin started finding even younger fans thanks to a new deal with Tompkins Square, an indie label founded by former Sony Music executive Josh Rosenthal. Louvin agreed to record again as soon as he heard that Tompkins Square has distribution, through Fontana. "People think I got out of the business but I just became disenchanted with the system," Louvin says. "I recorded several projects with indies, but they didn't have money to distribute them." Between that and middling production, none reached listeners beyond Louvin's core fans.
New audiences did discover Louvin in 2003, when he opened for Cake and Cheap Trick, and Universal South released the tribute album "Livin' Lovin' Losin': Songs of the Louvin Brothers," which won a Grammy Award for best country collaboration with vocals. In 2006 he released his first Tompkins Square project, a self-titled album with guest appearances from Costello, Tweedy, George Jones and others, which presented his music with a more modern production style. It has sold 10,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Tompkins Square subsequently released a live album and the gospel and murder ballads albums, which have so far sold about 1,000 copies each.
"It's a challenge with Charlie, because he's not Willie Nelson or Merle Haggard—he never had that kind of prominence as a solo artist," Rosenthal says. "But he's a living legend." So Rosenthal has tried to introduce Louvin to younger listeners by positioning him as an opening act for artists like Lucinda Williams and the Old 97's.
For his album of murder ballads, Louvin drew on songs he performed with the Louvin Brothers, as well as material from a Tompkins Square boxed set, "People Take Warning! Murder Ballads & Disaster Songs 1913-1938." One such song, "The Little Grave in Georgia," concerns an actual event Louvin heard about as a child: the 1913 murder of Mary Fagan in a Marietta, Ga., pencil factory. "Our mom told us that story," he recalls, "and we thought it was an awful thing." Awful indeed: Local citizens lynched the man accused of the murder, who was almost certainly innocent.
Now that Louvin is making albums again, he doesn't plan to stop. Later this year he wants to record an album of old blues songs in the studio of former the Band drummer Levon Helm. "I've done almost everything I'm capable of doing," Louvin says, "and my ambition now is to do a blues album."