The Johnny Cash/Rick Rubin records of the past decade may have come with a bit of an aftertaste — heightening a Man in Black mythos that appealed to hipster converts while obscuring Cash's tremendous musical/conceptual range — but say this for Rubin: He knew to otherwise stay out of the way of greatness.
Most producers faced with an aging legend on the comeback trail prove incapable of such restraint, choosing instead to clutter their project with too many backing players and name collaborators. It probably makes for a memorable experience for those invited to participate, but this gambit tends to damage the project.
Such it is with Charlie Louvin, in which producer Mark Nevers pairs with the legendary Louvin on a record in which all but one track feature a "featuring." The damage here is minimal by the standards of the celebrity-duet record, but it still feels a bit too busy, especially since Louvin's voice, though certainly weathered, still sounds strong enough and interesting enough to carry the record on its own. No recording of the great "The Christian Life" needs 10 people, including musicians and vocalists.
Louvin is the remaining half (alongside late brother Ira) of the Louvin Brothers, the country harmony duet team among the most important record makers of the 1940s and pre-rock '50s. The Louvins, who spent some time in Memphis, disbanded in 1963 (Ira passed away in '65), and Charlie recorded regularly as a solo artist through the early '70s and sporadically since then.
This is his first solo album in 15 years, and the song selection mixes classic Louvin copyrights ("Great Atomic Power," "The Christian Life") with other early genre classics (the Carter Family's "The Kneeling Drunkard's Plea," Jimmie Rodgers' "Waiting for a Train," etc.). The "guests" range from country followers such as George Jones and Tom T. Hall to rock-god fans such as Elvis Costello to indie/alt oddities such as Lambchop's Kurt Wagner and Superchunk's Mac McCaughan. (I'm sure Louvin is a huge "Slack Motherfucker" fan.)
Despite a title that focuses all attention on Louvin himself, Charlie Louvin comes off more like an attempt at an alt-country Will the Circle Be Unbroken but without quite the force of personality to pull it off. — Chris Herrington
Charlie Louvin returns to Memphis for an appearance at Shangri-La Records on Friday, April 20th, at 6 p.m. For more on Louvin at Shangri-La, see Local Beat, page 29.