"Your voice is strong even though you're gone / 'cause I still hear your part ... there'll never be another / 'cause you can't beat family." On this touchingly plain tribute to his departed brother Ira from his new album of mostly duets, bona fide country-music legend Charlie Louvin -- who celebrated his 80th birthday just two weeks back-- hits the rusty nail on the head.
Throw Elvis Costello, Will Oldham and Bright Eyes into a studio with Louvin; add musicians used to backing acts as diverse as Lambchop and Elvis Presley; mix it with a producer who publicly declares himself a barely reconstructed punk rocker. Nine times out of ten, you'll wind up with the kind of middle-of-the-road album that says, "See, this guy's important -- Elvis Costello likes him" to triple-A radio audiences across the nation.
But Charlie's different, 'cause he's got Ira.
In the 1950s and early '60s, Charlie and Ira Louvin churned out one country-music hit after another. And when it comes to so-called "alt-country," the Louvins practically wrote the book: Everyone from Hank and Johnny to the Byrds and Burritos to Uncle Tupelo and Jack White woodshedded on the Louvins' harmonies and records. So Charlie Louvin's not thinking about Jeff Tweedy from Wilco when they're singing the classic "Great Atomic Power." He doesn't even hear Tweedy's milquetoast reeds. In his mind's ear, it's still Ira singing that tenor.
It doesn't hurt that producer Mark Nevers isn't half the label-exec's man that, say, Bettye Lavette's Joe Henry turned out to be. Nevers has already played the "legend" game, producing Candi Staton's His Hands album, and he gets Charlie Louvin. Whereas many would've placed the star's more in-vogue guests at the forefront, Nevers makes the Wilco-ites and Elvis C's into the bit players they deserve to be in this game. What's more, Nevers stakes country music's claim, with Marty Stuart, Tom T. Hall, Bobby Bare Sr. and even George Jones popping up.
Charlie could be forgiven if he were sitting back on those hard-earned laurels, collecting a few bucks from the Louvin Brothers Museum (when in Nashville ...) and sipping iced tea on the porch. But here he is, out on the road, doing what a proper "legend" ought to do: Singin' where he's wanted, not worrying about why. Because he doesn't care that this Costello guy's name keeps appearing in reviews of his album. He doesn't even know who the fella is.
Charlie Louvin with Lucinda Williams. 8 p.m. Sat., July 21. Byham Theater, 101 Sixth St., Downtown. $36-46. 412-456-6666