A Country Collection: We're Louvin It

From the Chicago Sun-Times: http://www.suntimes.com/output/travel/tra-news-dave30.html - November 30, 2003, BY DAVE HOEKSTRA

           BELL BUCKLE, Tenn. -- One of the most extraordinary scenes in the cluttered Louvin Brothers Museum is a miniature church that high tenor Ira Louvin hand-carved from plywood. The detailed church features a miniature pulpit and poplar figurines that depict a five-voice African-American choir and African-American preacher.
           If the middle Tennessee light hits the church right, you can bend over, peek through a tiny window and see an open grave underneath the church. According to younger brother Charlie, Ira made the complex structure in 1950 after hearing Red Foley's "Steal Away."
           This piece of folk art begins to explain the Louvin Brothers. The Louvin Brothers are the most influential harmony group in country music history. In a time of Eisenhower-era optimism, the Louvins' gospel-influenced material was foreboding. Members of the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Louvin Brothers sang songs like the Carter Family's "The Kneeling Drunkard's Plea" and originals such as "Satan Is Real."
           Bassist Marshall Grant is the last surviving member of Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Two that bolted out of Sun Records in the summer of 1955. At the Johnny Cash Tribute concert held earlier this month in Nashville, Grant told the gathering, "All we wanted to do was gospel. We idolized the Louvin Brothers."
           A rare picture of a young Cash and Charlie Louvin at the Grand Ole Opry is one of the many treasures that hang in the Louvin Brothers Museum in rural Bell Buckle, about 70 miles southeast of Nashville. The picture is autographed by Cash.
           Trouble is that Bell Buckle is so rural (pop. 1,000), not many people saw the museum after it opened in 1995 adjacent to the L&N Railroad tracks. On Jan. 1 the museum will reopen next door to the Ernest Tubb Record Shop, 2416 Music Valley Dr. in Nashville (615-889-2474).

The Louvins are movin'.
           Charlie Louvin, a spry 76 years old, is overseeing the move. Ira died in a fiery car crash on Interstate 70, east of Williamsburg, Mo., on Father's Day in 1965. He was 41. The brothers had split as a performing duo in 1963. At the time of his death, Ira was on the road with Florence, his fourth wife and a musician in his band. Florence was also killed in the head-on accident.
           The museum includes two pictures of the car crash. The framed pictures are hung near the contract from the last joint Ira worked on June 16-19, 1965: Genova's Chestnut Inn, 2820 12th St., Kansas City, Mo.
           The museum also has a fan letter from Alabama Gov. George Wallace, a pipe that Ira smoked in 1951 and the first photograph of Charlie (at age 13) and Ira (at age 16) ever taken. It was shot by a neighbor lady who lived up the road from them in their native Henegar, Ala.
           And don't miss the wall of original vintage Louvin Brothers album covers such as "Satan Is Real." Charlie and Ira themselves designed the devil-with-a-pitchfork backdrop with rocks and scrap rubber. (While creating the devil's fire, the prop started burning and nearly engulfed the brothers in flames.) Brand-new "Satan Is Real" T-shirts are available for $15.
           The Louvin Brothers Museum is the most colorful music landmark I've visited since Ernie K. Doe's Mother-In-Law Lounge in New Orleans.

The Louvin Brothers didn't know they were making history as they were making music.
           "Considering how we were raised, music was easier than pickin' cotton or following the mule in the field," Louvin says. "If I brought something from our career home, my wife saved it. At one time, all this stuff in the museum was in the house. It got to the point where there was no place to live. She saved everything."
           In fact, Charlie's wife, Betty, constructed a museum wall montage of more than 50 Louvin Brothers 45s as well as Charlie's singles. I reckon there's a single for every year Charlie and Betty have been married: 54 years.
           Look for Charlie's single, "Tonight I'm Going to the Gallos," produced in the 1970s by Ernest Tubb producer Pete Drake. Louvin laughs and says, "He wants to get loaded, but it's not the gallows. It's Gallos Brothers wine."
           Near Betty's wall of sound, a pair of autographed baseballs caught my eye. They were tucked away in the back of a clear case. "Me, my brother and Roy Acuff played a benefit concert in Dizzy Dean's hometown [Lucas, Ark.]," Louvin says. "At the time I had two sons. I asked Dizzy for an autographed baseball for them. There's some precious autographs there. My wife traced over them. She made a $5,000 ball into a 50-cent ball."
           The miscue didn't stop Louvin from remembering Betty during a tour of Japan. A tiny geisha girl sits alone in a museum case. Louvin looks at the doll, dressed in a long orange kimono. Louvin sheepishly says, "I held that in my lap all the way home. Good thing the times weren't as they are now. They would have taken the doll apart." Across the way from the doll sits a battery-operated Zenith radio Ira and Charlie gave their mother, Georgiane Elizabeth, in 1948. She was the daughter of a Baptist preacher. The Louvin family's Alabama homestead did not have electricity. The radio sits next to a CB radio from the 1970s.
           Louvin says most Grand Ole Opry members have visited the museum, as did Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. The best thing about visiting the museum is having Louvin as your tour guide. He has a story for every step of the way.
           Louvin stops at the picture of Cash. His face gets straight and serious. "I met John when he was 12 years old," Louvin says. "My brother and I were working with Smilin' Eddie Hill in Memphis. We played the closest thing to John's hometown. He lived in an Arkansas cottonfield. It was my job to sell tickets. I was about 18. I noticed a little guy with overalls on, barefooted, but no shirt. I had to go to the bathroom so John led me to the outhouse.
           "When I came back outside, I reached into my shirt pocket. I had a pack of two soda crackers. I started eating them. John asked why I was eating them and to be a wise guy I said, 'To keep from starving to death.' He later said that the first few years he was singing, before he'd go onstage he'd get him a couple of soda crackers and eat them. "He still didn't think I was eating them to keep from starving."

Charlie Louvin is the personification of traditional country music around Nashville.
           He is a loyal member of the Grand Ole Opry and appears on the Opry every other weekend. A couple of months ago the Louvin Brothers were the subject of a remarkable tribute album that included guest appearances by James Taylor, Merle Haggard, Emmylou Harris and one of the last recordings by Johnny Cash.
           And in December 1996, country legend Faron Young committed suicide by shooting himself in the head. I attended Young's visitation at Woodland Memorial Gardens in Nashville. Everyone should attend a traditional Nashville country singer visitation.
           Charlie Louvin was the first face I recognized at the visitation. He held a small camera that served as a metaphor for his memories. "I've never had a hangover in my life," Louvin says "I've never been on a high. So this kind of excludes me from the party boys. But I hate to see them leave. I thought I'd live long enough to see some jealous husband shoot Faron. But I'd never imagine he'd take his own life.
           "I've known them all. I don't know of an enemy I have in the business. I despise some people's actions, but I hate no one. Usually hate will damage the person that's doing the hating. And the person you hate, they don't even know you hate them."
           Louvin stands near a black and white photograph of the Grand Ole Opry in 1957. There are more than 60 Opry members in the picture. Louvin has affixed small black dots near the faces of the Opry members who have died. The picture is full of black dots. Connect the dots.

See the Louvin Brothers Museum while you can.
           A NOTCH ABOVE: Just because the Louvin Brothers Museum is leaving Bell Buckle doesn't mean the small town isn't worth a look-see. "Well, I used to live over here at Wartrace, which is just over here," Louvin explains. "People say, 'Why did you locate here?' I'm an Alabama boy, but I've lived in Tennessee for 50 years. The man who owns the [Bell Buckle] cafe owns this land. He said we could build on it. As long as it's a museum, you don't pay rent."
           Bell Buckle is so small it really doesn't have a main street, but the quaint main drag is anchored by several antique stores. My favorite stop was Sweet Retreat, 6 Railroad Square (931-389-0012). Located in an old feed and seed store, the Sweet Retreat combines an ice cream shop and several rooms of furniture, jewelry, glassware, quilts and other antiques.
           But best of all, near the rear of the store I stumbled across a woman baking cakes in a small room. Miss Abigail's Cakes (931-389-0304) makes all sorts of delights, including the belt-snapping Bell Buckle Lemonade Cake. The three-layer cake stands 8 inches tall and is a mild lemon cake with creamy lemonade filling, topped with buttery lemon frosting and made with fresh lemon juice and zest.
           Bell Buckle is also the site of the famous RC & Moon Pie Festival. The 10th annual festival is scheduled for June 19, 2004. Besides RC Cola and Moon Pies (popularized in song by the band NRBQ), the festival incorporates arts, crafts and regional cuisine. For more information on Bell Buckle, call (931) 389-9663 or visit www.bellbucklechamber.com.

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