Monday, May 28, 2012

CHARLIE LOUVIN: STILL RATTLIN' THE DEVIL'S CAGE -- Interview with Filmmakers Blake Judd & Keith Neltner

If you're not familiar with the music of the legendary Louvin Brothers, find a copy of their classic album "Satan is Real".  Look at it.  Study it.  Absorb it.  Then play it.  That album cover says it all.  It sounds like it looks.  A weency bit on the hokey side (only in the since that most vintage country sounds hokey to the modern ears of many jaded listeners).  But the starkness and sincerity overwhelms any small amount of hokeyness.

It's an undeniable fact that sibling harmony is on the short list of sweetest sounds on the planet.  Charlie and Ira Louvin were startling.  Their high and low parts blended into a beautiful whole that was so authentic and real and at the same time so stark and disarming.  They influenced generations of musicians who came after them.

Put in the imagery they were so fond of in their music, the devil hounded brother Ira.  And the devil won.  

Charlie Louvin fought back against the devil.  

When Ira was killed in a car crash in 1965, Charlie carried on.  He enjoyed solo hits and thankfully for young folks like me, experienced a late-career rennaisance with the release of his 2007 album on Tompkins Square Records. 

Charlie lost his battle with pancreatic cancer in January 2011.  But not before he completed his autobiography with the help of Benjamin Whitmer (you can read my interview with Whitmer here) and a documentary on his legacy and influence with filmmakers Blake Judd and Keith Neltner.  View the trailer below:

I had the opportunity to speak with Judd and Neltner (who did all of the incredible graphic design pieces you see throughout this post) about the film and their experience working with Charlie Louvin.

(L to R) Blake Judd, Satan, and Keith Neltner

RYAN MIFFLIN: Tell me about “Still Rattling the Devil’s Cage”

BLAKE JUDD: Keith and I met Charlie several years back in 2008 and stayed in touch.  When we found out that he had pancreatic cancer, we both wanted to jump in and do something.  They had a benefit for Charlie and Keith sent some prints down to auction off to help raise a little money and I contacted him about going in together and getting a group of guys that we trust and know really good to bring in and maybe to a documentary on Charlie’s life.

Charlie Louvin

KEITH NELTNER: The one thing we did decide to do was film what ended up being Charlie’s last show at the FUBAR in Nashville.  We just planned to do a live DVD to commemorate the 50th anniversary of “Satan Is Real”. 

We were trying to raise some funds to take a crew to Nashville.  So we decided to use Kickstarter, which is kind of a creative forum where people can donate to basically fund creative projects.  We had a really modest budget of $3500 and the plan was to do the DVD and give Charlie 1,000 of them so he could take those out on tour and kind of offset some of his health care bills and things like that.  That was the original intent, but Charlie’s health progressively got worse through the six weeks after we did the interview at his house.

Throughout that time, Blake stayed in close contact with Charlie.  We decided to kind of make the film more about his resurgence.  Blake called him up and said, “Charlie, we’d like to include some of your friends” and he gave us the short list.  He basically gave Blake phone numbers for George Jones and Alison Krauss and some of the other guys that are in the film.  And from there it just kind of grew.

The documentary crew with Louvin at his home.(From left: Blake Judd, Charlie Louvin, Keith Neltner, Todd Tue, Brian Steege, and Kurt Strecker)

Film crew with the angelic Emmylou Harris (far right)

Crew with the legendary George Jones. (From left: Kurt Strecker, Keith Neltner, George Jones, Blake Judd, Jacob Ennis, and Brian Steege)
When you hear these folks – well-respected people like George Jones and Emmylou Harris – talk about Charlie, you can really tell the huge impact he’s had on them.  The Louvin Brothers are so legendary and have such an incredible legacy down through the years.  Did you get the sense that Charlie was aware of that?  If so, how did he walk around with that knowledge?

BLAKE JUDD: Charlie was pretty modest.  I mean, very down to earth.  When Keith and I met him the first time, we stopped to see him at his house on our way down to Montgomery, Alabama to visit the Hank Williams Museum.  I had written directions down on a napkin.  I’m not a big GPS kind of guy, I still like to do the old school thing and hunt it out.  Charlie was like “Why don’t you guys take my GPS?  It’s out there in the garage.  You guys can just mail it back to me or whatever when you’re done with it.”

He probably recognized it on some level but at the same time, he was a very, very humble man. 

Ira (left) and Charlie Louvin performing for a WSM Radio broadcast

KEITH NELTNER: I think one of the things that was pretty interesting was hearing different people, like John McCrea from Cake – who you wouldn’t expect to be a huge Charlie Louvin fan – talk about going on tour with him.  They were in these huge venues.  And Ira and Charlie, even in their heyday, were playing these really small clubs.  Sonny, Charlie’s son, said, “Dad wasn’t used to that.  He didn’t know what a green room was.  He didn’t know that there was catering and that people took care of you.” 

Charlie came from this place of being salt of the earth.  You worked for it.  Just like you worked a construction job, you know?  It was such a real thing for them.  It never affected him like it might affect artists today who are aware of who’s listening and who’s watching.

The Louvin Brothers at the Grand Ole Opry

BLAKE JUDD: Back then, the only way you knew what was going on was through the local papers.  But you were on such a move as a touring artist you usually didn’t catch the local paper.  And rarely did you make the national paper.  Those guys weren’t blitzed with all this media and social networking and access to information at your fingertips.  Like Charlie said, “We weren’t looking 60 years down the road, we were just trying to pay the bills and provide for our families.”

I think a lot of guys from that generation really never were and probably still aren’t aware of the impact that they were having then and they still have now.

I’m always struck by something Rhett Miller said in concert once, when Charlie was the opening act for the Old 97’s.  He said something to the effect that in a just world they would be opening for Charlie, not the other way around.  In the last few years, he released those great albums with Tompkins Square Records, there was the book with Benjamin Whitmer earlier this year, now the movie.  What did it mean to Charlie to have this late career renaissance? 

KEITH NELTNER: I think Charlie was kind of aware that things were coming to a close, and I think he wanted the legacy to be remembered.  If you read the book, it’s definitely present.  Those were kind of his last words.  I think that was really important to him.

When we met with him, he was really weak.  But, as soon as the camera turned on and we started asking questions, he was strong.  He didn’t take anything for granted; his family or his career.

BLAKE JUDD: I agree totally with Keith.  Even when we were with him that day in December – he passed away on January 26th – he was obviously down some weight and was a little weaker.  But if you would have said then that in 4 or 5 weeks, he’s going to pass on, I would have said there’s no way.  You just don’t see that coming.  I think Charlie himself knew.  He didn’t know when.  And those things needed to be got out.  I think he was appreciative before and appreciative when we were there.  He was very appreciative of people respecting and liking his music.

Tell me about the title of the film, “Still Rattlin’ the Devil’s Cage”.  I love that phrase.  Where did that come from?

KEITH NELTNER: I think one of the most stark images is the cover from “Satan is Real”.  Even for a newbie to the Louvin Brothers, it’s a little bit of a shock.  That idea of the devil in this resurgence just felt appropriate.  Charlie, at 83 was still out on the road and he was still giving him hell.  That phrase  came about and it ended up kind of becoming the mantra that we always came back to in making the film.

Like a lot of people, when I think of Charlie or the Louvin Brothers, the first thing I think of is that “Satan Is Real” cover.  The imagery is kind of hokey, but at the same time, as you said, it’s stark and it’s startling.  You can tell they meant it.  There’s also a sense in the book and this film that the devil really had it in for Charlie’s brother, Ira, and was really after him, and that Charlie fought hard against that.  He was obviously a man of faith, but it didn't seem to be in a “traditional” sense. 

BLAKE JUDD: I think Charlie was just real.  A lot of people think that when you have a spiritual belief system that you have to walk this really, really tight line.  To some degree you do, but at the same time, we are who we are and we’re all human.  Charlie was very, very human.

I know he wouldn’t’ sign gospel records.  If you had the country records, he would sign those.  But he would not sign the faith-based gospel records, which was always kind of interesting.  But he had a code that he did and he was a faith based man.  Everybody’s going to have their vices, which Charlie did as well.  But at the end of the day, he strongly stood behind what he believed in and it was evident in his work and his music and in his personal life.

Poster illustration and design Keith Neltener

What was the biggest thing that each of you took away from this experience?

KEITH NELTNER: I think its how the project came together and the support through Kickstarter that helped move this thing forward.  There were fans from basically all over the world who stepped up financially.  In Charlie’s passing, there were a lot of things that were left unresolved.  People like Emmylou Harris and John McCrea – who was very emotionally touched by Charlie’s passing…everyone said “yes”.  If we needed a second interview, no one felt inconvenienced. That’s a tribute to Charlie. 

Every DVD that is sold on the film’s website, the money goes directly to Betty’s account.  Betty is Charlie’s wife.  It’s been positive and it came from a good place.  There’s a lot of good energy around it.

BLAKE JUDD: I feel like it was one of those things where a group of guys came together to do something positive with no ulterior motives, with all right intentions, and a group of celebrities and behind the scenes people did the same, and the stars aligned.  When a lot of people come together to do something for a great cause, genuinely, something like this turns out.  It’s just a tribute to all the people involved and the impact that Charlie had on them.

This project has been very well received, hasn’t it?

KEITH NELTNER: Yes.  We were just featured in the Nashville Film Festival.  It was showcased and sold out one of the showings.  We had a panel discussion with Rodney Crowell and a few other folks from Nashville.  We’re in discussions to show the film in Sand Mountain, where Charlie and Ira were from.  There may be a screening down there later in the year.

Film crew at he Nashville Film Festival with Rodney Crowell (left) and Jim Lauderdale  (4th from left)

From left: Steege, Neltner, Tue, Judd, Satan, and Jeff Chambers at the Nashville Film Festival.

To find out more about “Still Rattlin’ the Devil’s Cage”, or to purchase a copy, visit  All proceeds from DVD sales directly benefit Charlie Louvin’s family.

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