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Music Review: Charlie Louvin – Steps to Heaven

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Here’s hoping we’re all doing as well as Charlie Louvin by the time we reach the age of 81, instead of slobbering into our beers, boring the pants off strangers with exaggerated tales of our glory days, and fighting off senility. A recent surge of activity that would put much younger musicians to shame has seen Louvin tour with Lucinda Williams, appear at the Bonnaroo and Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festivals, and the release of 2007’s Charlie Louvin (when you’ve been recording since the Truman administration, I suppose you eventually run out of album titles). With contributions from Jeff Tweedy, Elvis Costello, and Will Oldham, many critics rightly went batshit crazy for that album.

Though this resurgence probably won’t make Louvin a household name – the bulk of his audience will likely remain the more hardcore music history buffs and fellow musicians – it has certainly led to increased critical and media attention for the performer.

Louvin’s Steps to Heaven is the first of two albums for the Alabama-born musician planned for release in 2008. Consisting of traditional gospel tunes, as well two Louvin Brothers originals, the album was produced by Mark Nevers and features a three sister strong gospel choir, Derrick Lee on piano, and Chris Scruggs on bass and electric guitar.

The risk any religious album runs is being excessively preachy or dogmatic, and thus turning off secular listeners by discounting the music in an attempt to spread a very specific message (similar to a truly heinous Christian rock album or even Bob Dylan’s Saved and Shot of Love debacles). Thankfully, Louvin’s album doesn’t have this particular character flaw; listeners who agree with every word as well as those who can quote The God Delusion from memory will both likely enjoy the album.

In many ways the album is reminiscent of Johnny Cash’s American Recordings releases. Like the best moments of those albums, Louvin’s voice, ranging from weary and ragged to powerful and confident, is perhaps Steps’ most striking and immediate feature. His voice carries the weight of a lifetime of experience with it; coupled with Nevers’ warm production and the band’s contributions, the songs take on a certain immediacy and impact that might not exist if sung by a younger musician or played in a different arrangement. 

Many of the songs strongly evoke an acceptance of mortality without any fear of death; the promise of an afterlife runs through the songs. As interpreted by Louvin, these traditional songs are meant to offer comfort; standout interpretations of “How Beautiful Heaven Must Be” and “If We Never Meet Again This Side of Heaven” are perhaps the clearest expressions of this theme. This overtly religious theme is explored in depth without becoming overbearing; still, any listener needing a quick hit of songs about humankind’s ultimate demise can give Tom Waits’ Bone Machine a spin as needed. 

Yet the album does have some drawbacks. Most noticeably, sometimes the background singing drowns out Louvin’s voice or is occasionally overwrought and affected. “There’s a Higher Power” and “Where We’ll Never Grow Old” are the most egregious offenders.

Despite these few missteps, Charlie Louvin’s Steps to Heaven is an excellent release. The production is warm and clean, the musicianship is spot-on, and Louvin’s voice evokes a world of emotions and textures. Though it’s an album rooted in a very specific faith and set of beliefs, it doesn’t attempt to force such beliefs on the listener. It’s a worthy entry in Louvin’s varied and lengthy career. 

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