I met a little girl in Knoxville
A town we all know well?
So begins the most horrific murder ballad ever to appear in the country-music top 20. The lyrics of "Knoxville Girl" are more violent than most gangsta rap: For no stated reason, an unstable lover bludgeons his girlfriend to death, soaking the ground with blood, then drags her by her "golden curls" to the river, and orders her to sink. Go down, go down, you Knoxville girl, with the dark and roaming eye?
The fact that the tune—especially the Louvin Brothers definitive 1956 rendition of it—is also beautiful makes the song all the more eerie. It's a slow waltz with bloody murder.
It's based on an old English ballad originally known as "Wexford Girl," or "Wentworth Girl," or "Oxford Girl," depending on which folk-music authority you listen to. Because Knoxville was a river town with a name that scanned right, they say, it appeared in the American version. But you don't have to look through many 19th-century Knoxville newspapers to believe the story might have happened, exactly as described in the song, and probably more than once.
Charlie Louvin says he and his brother Ira grew up hearing that song in 1930s Alabama. Their dad grew sugar cane on a small farm at Sand Mountain. He and his brother had a natural harmony but might not have done much with it were it not for a rare visit from a performer who was probably the biggest star in the South in the summer of 1940.
Charlie was barely 13. He sounds as if he was more impressed by Roy Acuff's car than by his music. "His car was so big, we thought it must have hinges to get around the corners," Louvin recalls. Acuff, who'd left Knoxville two years earlier for the Opry big time, played in a schoolhouse. The Louvin brothers couldn't afford the 25-cent ticket but stood outside and heard the music through the open windows. They were so impressed, they began imitating Roy's high-lonesome style. "My brother could do the Roy tenor," Charlie recalls. "I could do the Oswald tenor." (Oswald was the stage name of Pete Kirby, Acuff's longtime singing partner.)
The brothers developed a keen harmony so rare fans can recognize it without hearing a whole 3/4-time bar. Charlie doesn't make any excuses for his late brother's personal excesses, but says Ira developed the finest tenor in country-music history. Many agree. Ira Louvin did the Roy tenor better than Roy did.
Still, success was slow coming. They became acquainted with Knoxville as teenagers accompanying their father on his 150-mile trips to Knoxville's Market Square to sell sorghum, a quarter per half-gallon bucket. After stints in the army, the Louvins were back here in '47 hoping to get a foot in the door of Knoxville's regionally famous country-music business.
The Knoxville days weren't easy ones. Playing with another duo on Cas Walker's WROL, they discovered they were being stiffed for the $150/week sponsorship money Cas was paying, expecting the quartet would split it between themselves. When the Louvins complained and Cas insisted they get their share, Charlie says, the other bandmembers fired them.
Later, working for Lowell Blanchard's WNOX, the Louvins were victim of Ira's famous excesses. "Ira got mad about something; he smashed his mandolin on stage. Lowell said, 'We'll let it slide; you didn't know it was against our rules to bust instruments on stage.'" But Ira's ire eventually tried even Blanchard's patience.
For the Louvins, Gay Street wasn't the yellow-brick road it had been for other country performers. "I love Knoxville," Charlie says. "Cas Walker saved a lot of hillbillies' lives.. But Knoxville wasn't that good for us." Eating a bowl of cornflakes one day in a cafe across from the WNOX studio—Charlie's not sure it wasn't Harold's—he looked up when a tall man in a big white Stetson strode in; he turned out to be country star Smilin' Eddie Hill, who was impressed with the Louvins and offered them work in Memphis. But that didn't work out in the end, either, and after a tour of the Korean War, Charlie was working as a postal clerk in Memphis. "The postmaster didn't like hillbillies," he says. After a dispute, his boss said, "Make up your mind, be a hillbilly or a postal clerk."
They fled to Birmingham, where, he says, "We damn near starved." They recorded some gospel music but were never a major success. Then, in early 1955, they bluffed their way into the Grand Ole Opry. In May they cut their first secular recording—and their first big hit—"When I Stop Dreaming," which soared up the country singles charts, peaking at #8. One hit followed another: "My Baby's Gone," "Don't Laugh," "You're Running Wild," "Cash On the Barrelhead," "I Don't Believe You've Met My Baby."
They toured with Elvis Presley—tempestuously, since Ira despised the younger performer—and influenced another sometime-Knoxville duo, the Everly Brothers. For the record, Charlie says he likes the Everlys' work.
"Knoxville Girl" came out in 1956 and became the Louvins' most-requested song. "Unbelievably so, it's the most requested song we ever sang," he says. "I don't know why—it's exceptionally morbid."
One of the Louvins' last singles, "Wreck On the Highway," seems prophetic. Ira's wild days ended in a car wreck in 1965, several months after the duo broke up. Charlie remained a stalwart on the Opry and remains so to this day—though he doesn't like most of what comes out of Nashville these days. "There are still people out there that love traditional music," Charlie says, but he admits he resents having to call it that to distinguish it from country, which he says has become a name for acts that would fail on the pop charts. "I don't think we should have to change our name every time a new thing comes along."
Charlie now lives in Manchester, Tenn., near Bell Buckle, which has developed its own maverick recording industry. His new partner is Charles Whitstein, a younger mandolinist formerly of the Whitstein Brothers. "They broke up, like all brother acts do," Charlie says. "He plays mandolin and sings remarkably like my brother." All but a couple of the songs they'll play Friday night are old Louvin Brothers tunes. If they don't play "Knoxville Girl," ask for it.