(“Exploring the Classics” (ETC) is an ongoing series in which I highlight and discuss an album from country music’s past that is of particular noteworthiness due to general acclaim, influence, historical import, commercial success, or some combination thereof. While in many instances I’ll be revisiting albums with which I’ve long been familiar, in others I’ll be experiencing these works for the first time. What albums count as “noteworthy” is obviously highly subjective and determined at my discretion, but I’m not too strict about it. I do, however, feel that these are the works that tell the story of country music and all of its many roots and branches.)
Charlie and Ira Louvin might not enjoy the same level of name recognition as some other legends, but a familiarity with their work is absolutely essential if you wish to have a full understanding of the history of country music. Building on the tradition of close harmony duet singing, the combination of Ira’s tenor and Charlie’s baritone took the country music world by storm in the 1950s and 1960s. The duo recorded numerous songs that would go on to become country standards and had an impact that was deep and wide, directly influencing musical giants like the Everly Brothers, Emmylou Harris and Gram Parsons. While the brothers’ discography is thoroughly excellent (the career-spanning Bear Family box set Close Harmony is as good of a compilation there is), two albums in particular are widely celebrated: 1959’s gospel Satan is Real (which I will undoubtedly also cover at some point), and their 1956 debut LP, the secular Tragic Songs of Life.
While upbeat material was also highly plentiful, the country music of the early years is often noted for its potential to explore some truly dark and macabre subject matter to a degree that is virtually unheard of for a commercial country artist basically any time after. Tragic Songs of Life is one of the most legendary examples of this. It consists of exactly what it says on the cover. With only one or two exceptions such as the humor-tinged “Let Her Go, God Bless Her”, these are tales of the downtrodden, the destitute, the hopeless and heartbroken. The people who misfortune has smiled upon. While there are a few more conventional (albeit very well-executed) country heartbreak songs scattered throughout the album, several of the tracks describe people and situations that are, befitting the title, so tragic they stick out even in a genre not short of sad songs.
There’s the one about the man who after a hunting accident makes promises to his dying brother that he proves unable to fulfill (“My Brother’s Will”). The little boy who learns that his sweetheart is moving away because her family’s farm is in foreclosure, and doesn’t understand why the money saved in his piggy bank isn’t enough to get her back (“A Tiny Broken Heart”). The old man who refuses to allow his wayward daughter and her child into his home during a windstorm, resulting in awful consequences (“Mary of the Wild Moor”). The soldier who returns home from the war but feels a sense of duty to reenlist, knowing full well he won’t make it back (“Take The News to Mother”). The Romeo and Juliet-esque tale of two young lovers who commit suicide when they realize they can not be together because of her parents’ disapproval (“Katy Dear”). And perhaps most famously, there’s the traditional murder ballad of “Knoxville Girl”, in which while on an evening walk a young man brutally beats his girlfriend to death for seemingly no particular reason (and this was a #19 country hit!). Even the ostensibly “happy” songs often contain a sense of foreboding. When the narrator of “Kentucky” finally gets there, will it really be as utopian as he imagines?
All of this could easily have come off as heavy-handed with lesser vocalists at the helm, but Charlie and Ira’s performances are measured and exhibit a degree of passion and sincerity that prevent these songs from seeming mawkish or anything but genuine. Granted, if you like your country music to be all happy all the time (and there’s nothing wrong with that), this album is not likely to appeal to you, but if you don’t mind music that explores the darker side of life, look no further. Tragic Songs of Life is one of the bedrock releases of country music, and is frequently cited as one of the greatest country albums of all-time. While I personally think Satan is Real reaches even greater heights and is a little tighter overall, I have no problem claiming that Tragic Songs of Life is basically as good as country music gets and provides a unique listening experience that is raw, real and highly moving.
Standout Track: “A Home Without Love” is as fine of a heartbreak song I’ve ever heard. When in the chorus the brothers sing “You can have wealth and its pleasures, but what is a home without love”, their delivery, particularly of the word “pleasures”, gives me goosebumps every time.
Weak Track(s): None
Best/Most Memorable Lyric: The shocking second verse of “Knoxville Girl” is hard to beat:
“We went to take an evening walk
About a mile from town
I picked a stick up off the ground
And knocked that fair girl down.”