John Sieger
Sieger on Songs

“If I Could Only Win Your Love”

The Louvin Brothers’ harmonies led the way to the Everly Brothers and Beatles.

By - Dec 12th, 2014 10:55 am
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Satan is Real by The Louvin Brothers.

Satan is Real by The Louvin Brothers.

Sibling harmony, often dazzling in it’s beauty on the stage, can disappear and turn into something more cantankerous behind the curtain. There are many stories told of this, involving The Everly Brothers, The Kinks, Oasis, Creedence Clearwater, and Dire Straits. Let’s just say separate buses were sometimes required. I have had the pleasure of harmonizing with my own brother, the High Harmony King, Mike Sieger since high school. Believe me, there are few pleasures that can match a locked-in harmony with someone who shares a lot of your DNA and a lifetime of experiences. Recently, Mike and I have been performing a few Everly numbers with my son, Sam Sieger, on drums and the skilled guitarist Peter Roller chiming in. These songs, as wonderful and important as they are to the history of rock’n’roll, did not suddenly appear when Phil and Don Everly burst on the scene. Those two had been studying their predecessors.

Meet The Louvin Brothers. Ira and Charlie Louvin had a string of hits in the 1950s and early ’60. They recorded one certified gospel masterpiece, Satan Is Real. For the cover they constructed a 12-foot effigy of the Prince Of Darkness, stood him up in the middle of a tire fire and smiled for the cameras from their own personal hell. The template for brother harmony (maybe sister harmony, too) was pretty much created by these two magnificent and complicated men.

In their oft-covered, but never topped song, If I Could Only Win Your Love, it sounds like like angels were in the studio guiding and inspiring them. The lyrics were certainly simple enough, as were the chords and melody. You’d have to say that the whole is definitely greater than the sum of its parts.

If I could only win your love
I’d make the most of everything
I’d proudly wear your wedding ring
My heart would never stray one dream away

Oh how can I ever say
How I crave your love when you’re gone away
Oh how can I ever show
How I burn inside when you hold me tight

If I could only win your love
I’d give my all to make it live
You’ll never know how much I’d give
If I could only win your love

© Charlie and Ira Louvin

The sweetness and straightforward innocence captured in this song are so far gone it’s almost impossible to measure. For contemporary artists seeking authenticity, it’s heartbreaking to hear these voices. The heavy southern accents didn’t stop when the record light went off. They didn’t have to affect this sound, it was them, through and through. Now, having grown up in the polka belt, where we approach Fargo-like levels of nasality and upper-midwestern-ness, our regional sound will never be described as musical. Our almost impossible task is to work our way backwards into other cultures where we will always be at least one step removed from this beautiful gift of time and place. Even if you happen to stumble upon something workable, you have to be vigilant — there’s always the possibility of getting it wrong by overdoing the mannerisms and leaning on the accent too heavily. Then it’s no less a travesty than men in tutus dancing on point.

The price of this authenticity wasn’t cheap, though. If you think living in the south in the middle of the last century would be worth it, it’s best to remember there were probably as many Lester Madduxes as Atticus Finches. I wouldn’t try to gauge what the Louvin Brothers’ politics were or even say that it matters. I would like to think that being Christian and creators of such lovely music would automatically make them men of strong moral character. But there was a demon at least as tall as the one on the album cover looming over one of the brothers.

Ira, the older and taller sibling, was a talent of the first order. Mostly responsible for the high parts, he played mandolin so well comparisons to Bill Monroe were tossed about. It was all seemingly effortless. But off the stage he was raging alcoholic, and a very angry man who lashed out at anyone around him — including his four wives. Number three shot him four times and and swore she’d do it again if he lived. He did live — but only into the mid-‘60s when he and his fourth wife died in a head-on collision driving home from an appearance. By that time, the brothers had gone their separate ways and the Everlys had taken over, influencing The Beatles with what they had learned from Charlie and Ira.

What was it about close harmony that was so delicious? Aside from the uncanny resemblance of their voices, (they would often trade places, with Charlie going high — few could tell) there was the avoidance of dull, parallel harmonies. You couldn’t predict when Ira was going to shadow Charlie, basically flying in a tight formation, or decide to pedal on one note, or create a counter melody. This inventive approach was studied and applied later by others. Prime examples are The Everly’s song “Cathy’s Clown” and The Beatles “Please, Please Me.”

It’s a long way from that cotton patch in Henagar, Alabama, to Liverpool, England and back again, via The British Invasion. There a lot of oddities in music. One is that we can’t appreciate the deepness of our own culture until it’s reflected back to us from across a wide expanse of water. Another is the thought of such compelling and sweet music coming from these siblings, so close on stage and so far apart off. You come face to face with the biggest mystery, one that will probably never be solved, when you contemplate artists unable to experience the joy they so off-handedly create.

0 thoughts on “Sieger on Songs: “If I Could Only Win Your Love””

  1. Anonymous says:

    Louvrin Brothers were a big influence of Gram Parsons too. the one bro died pretty early in this history and drink was his problem. considering the religious thing, it is such a classic appalachian context and conflict. I grew up with the midwestern hayride and porter wagner. it was its own isolated culture at the time. working class and alcohol. thanks for sharing. god is real! but not in my neighborhood…

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