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Charlie Louvin - Steps to Heaven

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Artist: Charlie Louvin

Album: Steps to Heaven

Label: Tompkins Square

Review date: Oct. 3, 2008

The Louvin Brothers’ classic Satan Is Real is the kind of gospel record you hear playing late at night in dive bars. Far from a statement of praise and worship for upstanding Christians, the album is a blueprint for damnation and a reminder that salvation is out there if you can drag yourself off the stool. While a quick glance at the album’s timelessly absurd cover photo - featuring a cardboard cut of Lucifer that looks like a prop from an elementary school production of Faust - can make one question the severity of the Louvins’ brand of hell fire, make no mistake about it: Charlie Louvin and his brother Ira were true believers, whose artistry cannot be disentangled from the Christian faith.

With faith, however, comes temptation and sin, both of which contributed to Ira’s untimely demise in a car wreck in 1965. Charlie, however, was able to keep his demons at bay and sustain a surprisingly long and productive solo career.

Nearly a half-century since he struck out on his own comes Steps to Heaven. Unlike 2007’s Grammy-winning self-titled release, which featured guest appearances from various alt-country heavyweights, Steps to Heaven is a sparse, raw affair that lays the singer’s faith bare. The album is a gospel throwback comprising traditional spirituals built on sparse instrumentation (piano, occasionally bass and guitar) and tasteful backing vocals. The twist, however, is that rather than indulging in old time country, Louvin performs with a black gospel trio and in a style more suited to the traditional African-American church than the kind in which he and his brother were raised.

It’s hard to look at this pairing and not see a social statement, if inadvertent, being made. While Charlie Louvin was never a vocal advocate of the discriminatory institutions that dominated the area in which he was raised, he was nonetheless of the culture. Also, a history lesson isn’t needed to understand that churches of the deep South were as segregated as schools and lunch counters. With that in mind, a white octogenarian from such a world collaborating with a black gospel group for the first time is probably worth celebrating in its own right. Thankfully, the music is equally noteworthy.

Steps to Heaven is, for the most part, positive in its outlook. A kinder gentler God, as opposed to his vengeful alter ego, is extolled here, and though there are up-beat tunes throughout ("There’s a Higher Power," which the Brothers tackled on Satan is Real and “I Feel Like Traveling On”), the album comes across as peaceful rather than jubilant. This is the sound of a man approaching the end of his mortal coil; having long ago seen the light, Louvin is reveling in both the beauty around him (“Love at Home”) and the even brighter vision to come (“I am Bound for the Promise Land”). His high lonesome isn’t as clear and sharp as it once was, but its withered tone projects a wobbly yet enduring strength. Cradled by the blue notes that accent these arrangements and the elegant power of his backing vocalists, Louvin’s singing nods knowingly at the soul.

Of course, don’t expect Steps to Heaven to actually save lost souls, any more than Satan Is Real will make listeners fear that album’s title proclamation. Yet, just as the latter is a perfect companion for nights when the world feels just plain evil, Steps to Heaven should make even the most hardened realist walk the sunny side for at least a day or two.

By Nate Knaebel

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