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The sound of close harmony
August 2, 2008 6:56 PM   Subscribe

Close Harmony is one of the most distinctive sounds in traditional country. Hank Wangford's A to Z of Country and Western looks at the Louvin Brothers music in this style.

Close Harmony is one of the most distinctive sounds in traditional country. The term refers to the keening two (occasionally three) part harmonies that acts like the Louvin Brothers and the Delmore Brothers popularized. The sound of close harmony grew out of the high, lonesome sound of bluegrass, yet most close-harmony songs were closer to traditional country than bluegrass. During the late '40s and early '50s, close-harmony acts became quite popular, thanks to a string of brother acts. The Louvin Brothers, perhaps the definitive close-harmony group, became popular at the end of the era. Their popularity was impeded by the emergence of rock & roll, which cut the country audience dramatically. Ironically, close-harmony acts in general — and the Louvins in particular — were an influence on the harmony style of the Everly Brothers, who happened to write the template for rock & roll harmonies with their late '50s singles. The Everlys' influence was as apparent in the Beatles as the Louvins were in the Everlys, and that is just one testament to the depth and influence of close harmony.

Jim and Jesse. When I stop dreaming

Louvin Brothers ~ Cash On The Barrel Head

EVERLY BROTHERS SING "I'M HERE TO GET MY BABY OUT OF JAIL cover The Blue Sky Boys
posted by nola (22 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite

 
Hey, nice. I had watched that youtube clip and then a shiny car went by and caught my attention, so I didn't go back to it (I loved it, though, because I really and truly love the Louvin and Everly Bros.). Thanks for posting this, nola.
posted by sleepy pete at 6:58 PM on August 2, 2008


Nice. I grew up listening to The Statler Brothers, and after reading this I can see/hear the "close harmony" part of how they sing, even though there are 4 of them.
posted by Big_B at 7:52 PM on August 2, 2008


Nice find Nola.
posted by vronsky at 8:09 PM on August 2, 2008


Man, here I am trying to get my mandolin in tune, and you have to go and throw Jesse in my face.

Thanks for the post!
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 8:14 PM on August 2, 2008


thanks for this!
posted by fourcheesemac at 8:18 PM on August 2, 2008


Satan is real.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 8:26 PM on August 2, 2008 [2 favorites]


Nice! A tip o' the cowboy hat to ya, nola!

Also, related, previously.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 8:30 PM on August 2, 2008


However, as is all too often the case with YT, the linked videos from the Delmore Brothers post are gone with the wind. Goddamit.

*reminder to self: download. download.*
posted by flapjax at midnite at 8:32 PM on August 2, 2008


The internet, get it while it's hot kids, get it while it's hot.
posted by nola at 8:45 PM on August 2, 2008


Vern Gosdin, Emmylou Harris, and Ira Louvin doing "Love and Wealth". Found that after some yt surfing. Damn, that's nice.

Also, there's a great version of "Cash on the Barrel Head" at WFMU's page on country fuzz done by Charlie Louvin.
mentioned previously and all that
posted by sleepy pete at 10:01 PM on August 2, 2008


It was this Hank Wangford series that first turned me on to Country Music. Until then, I just regarded it as music for old people.

My own Louvins favourite: I don't believe you've met my baby.

And from the same show, Hank Wangford and Billy Bragg cover Gram Parsons.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 11:24 PM on August 2, 2008


Satan is real.

In my opinion, the Louvins best stuff is their overtly fundamentalist Gospel material -- the Satan is Real album in particular, but also their covers of various hymns. The Louvins were sinners -- Charlie in particular, was a rotten nasty drunk, yet came from a culture that regarded drinking as sinful. Ira was married three times and tried to kill his wife by strangling her. (Their cut of Knoxville Girl obviously had real resonance for him.) His wife responded by shooting him three times.

And so I've always had the sense of them as singing in a desperate attempt to save their souls, which lends their music an urgency and an authenticity that you don't hear in much American music. The Louvins aren't delivering a glib, soulless gospel music, but the musical account of a lived struggle for salvation.

Satan is Real has also got one of the best covers of any album ever as well.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 11:42 PM on August 2, 2008 [3 favorites]


Also, it's in threads like this that I miss the comments of realcountrymusic.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 11:47 PM on August 2, 2008


Awesome, thanks for this reminder of the Louvins.
posted by Knappster at 11:54 PM on August 2, 2008


Here's a clip on the Louvin's gospel roots from a BBC documentary on White Gospel music.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 12:13 AM on August 3, 2008


Great music here. Thanks. When I was young I hated this kind of music, I thought it was whiny and boring. Nowadays it's almost all that I can sit still for. I love this stuff.
posted by RussHy at 5:00 AM on August 3, 2008



This made my (very early) morning! I grew up listening to Jim 'n Jesse - I can close my eyes and smell the warm grass of childhood as I listen to them. Awesome post.
posted by trixare4kids at 6:35 AM on August 3, 2008


Listening to my mother sing along with this kind of harmony on the radio as a kid is what made me a musician. As one of the comments on the Gosdin/Harris/Louvin link notes "singing together. not trying to out-sing each other. beautiful."
posted by Enron Hubbard at 7:19 AM on August 3, 2008


PeterMcDermott -- You are absolutely right about the Louvin's hard-gospel being their greatest stuff. Big sinners need big religion. I came to the Louvins through the Byrds cover of "Christian Life" back in 1968. But the big secular exception in the Louvins' catalogue is "When I Stop Dreaming" -- a kind of pre-Raphaelite lament of such wimpy, transcendent beauty, that it has been called the "purest expression of white 'soul'."

RussHy -- What you say is true. The Louvins, along with a lot other white gospel harmonizing, is something that strikes the very young as loathsomely bland (especially compared to the sweaty excitement of African American music). But you can come to appreciate it as you get old, and realize that the kind of making-order-out-of-chaos that is represented by close harmony, is a rare thing on this earth, and that for middle-aged white men to be singing together, rather than competing with one another, or cheating one another, or lusting after each other's wives, is a strange and marvelous thing.
posted by Faze at 7:29 AM on August 3, 2008 [2 favorites]


Hah! Great comment Faze! Every now and again you surprise me.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 7:32 AM on August 3, 2008


Over on CBEB's blog, you can listen to an MP3 of them performing the classic Don't Let Them Take The Bible Out Of Our Schoolroom.

If it's right to allow liquor in most counties
On the newstand see the sinful pictures there
If it's right for moving pictures of corruption
Dear God how can we say it's wrong for prayer
Don't let them take the Bible out of our school rooms
Don't let them close the door of your childs heart
Don't let them rob our children of salvation
If you do we're going to lose them from the start
posted by PeterMcDermott at 9:53 AM on August 3, 2008


Charlie Louvin talks about the Satan is Real album cover in this video.
posted by Knappster at 8:43 PM on August 4, 2008


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