Charlie Louvin Sings Murder Ballads and Disaster Songs is the second release in 2008 from the grizzled music veteran. Earlier this year Louvin got godly on Steps to Heaven, a strong collection of gospel songs that also included a sometimes-overzealous set of background singers. Showing a definite Christian religious conviction without being heavy-handed or dogmatic, it focused heavily on mortality, albeit with an uplifting underlying theme of the afterlife.
Louvin’s latest album veers dramatically in the opposite direction; Sings Murder is far more morbid, bleak, violent, and darkly humorous than Steps to Heaven. Mixing a number of traditional folkie/bluegrass songs (some of which previously appeared on the excellent People Take Warning! box set) with other old-timey tunes that nevertheless still sound relevant today, the album also serves as a nice reminder of just how fascinating, bizarre, and strangely beautiful these aging ballads are. It also recalls Louvin’s earliest work; 1956’s ironically-titled Tragic Songs of Life dealt heavily in equally dark topics.
The album’s production serves Louvin’s ragged voice very well; under the guidance of producer Mark Nevers, the songs are warm and balanced. Each instrument is given enough space, the album never sounds cluttered or over saturated, and Louvin’s voice is just right in the mix. The record blends musical elements that play to Louvin’s strengths, whether it’s the upbeat country roll of “Darling Corey,” (which also features Andrew Bird on fiddle), the rustic spiritual arrangement of “Wreck On the Highway,” the subdued guitar work on “Dark as a Dungeon, or the steel guitars that dot most of the songs.
The album includes several ballads that are standards of American music. “Wreck of the Old 97” and “Dark as a Dungeon” are probably the two songs that listeners who aren’t hardcore music history wackos will even recognize, probably because those songs have been performed by other artists. Louvin’s take on the venerable train tragedy song is far more restrained than Johnny Cash’s speed-fuelled live versions, though Louvin’s performance here similarly relies on a rhythm and instrumental approach that is highly evocative of a train. Louvin approaches Merle Travis’ “Dungeon” with a vocal weariness that brings out the song’s gloom and doom far better than the shrill versions Joan Baez has subjected our ears to over the years.
Other songs show that Louvin remains a skilled interpreter of American ballads. The traditional “The Little Grave in Georgia” is the album’s most moving and emotional song, with a remarkably depressing violin and guitar melody underpinning the woeful tale about dead Mary and her grave “all covered in ivy.” It also features Louvin’s most assured and confident singing.
Sings Murder also serves as a nice primer on the images, metaphors, and plainly strange motifs that define the American songbook. In these songs people die of broken hearts and it’s entirely believable; the tragic couple of “Katy Dear” are forbidden to marry by their parents, so of course they do the most logical thing and kill themselves (hell if I know why they don’t just defy their parents and get hitched anyway). A father can coldly turn his back on his daughter and her newborn child, only to become overcome with grief and sorrow when she (big surprise) freezes to death outside his doorstep (“Mary of the Wild Moor”). And in these songs fatal highway wrecks come with “whiskey and blood all together mixed with the glass,” great ships sink, trains crash, village bells toll in mourning, a brother is killed in a freak hunting accident, the cotton crop goes to shit, and the hair of the dead underage beautiful girl is always dark and curly.
Sings Murder isn’t for everyone; it won’t light up the charts and its best songs won’t be used in a promo for CSI Miami. But for music fans interested in the bizarre and beautiful nature of traditional songs, this is a welcome and worthwhile album.