Incandescent. That’s always the word that comes to mind when I think of the Louvin Brothers. Their close harmonies shine brightly. In his posthumously published autobiography, Satan is Real, Charlie Louvin sheds some light on that preternatural glow of when he and Ira sang. He writes that Billy Bob Thornton (yes, Slingblade), couldn’t tell who was “leading the song, Ira or me. And the truth is that neither Ira nor I really ever did lead a song all the way through. We changed parts whenever we needed.”
The intensity of their symbiosis helped make the music of the Louvin Brothers uncannily ever-green. The music I love most contains two characteristics – authenticity and texture. Often, that duality seems to necessitate a kind of roughness – I mean, my favorite as readers know is Bob Dylan (always Dylan), who is not known for his silky voice, his guitar (or keyboard) technique, or the sophistication of his arrangements. Yet, when it comes to authenticity and texture, Bob sets the standard by the rest are measured.
The Louvin recordings are smooth, ultra-smooth. They have an unmistakable high treble sound; Their phrasing is never affected; the lyrics are always sung with an articulate crispness. The Louvin Brothers sound – if not their songs – would be out of place on Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music. Compared to some of their contemporaries, the Carter Family or RoyAcuff or Hank Williams, the Louvins are down right commercial – sonically – even though they were never nearly as popular.
That smoothness works as a counter balance to the songs, which Emmy Lou Harris is famously quoted as calling “Scary and Washed in Blood.” When it comes to authenticity, Johnny Cash comes to mind as one of the few who can match the Louvins. The songs – whether one of the many the brothers wrote and/or the covers or traditional tunes they put their distinct stamp upon – create a world, a Louvin land that mirrors our own reality – life is hard but love is worth living for; it’s a world of family, faith, work and tragedy.
Charlie’s autobiography is named after one of the greatest records anyone has ever made, and the title track is as unforgettable as it is original.
“Satan is real, working in spirit, you can see him and hear him in this world everyday, Satan is real, working with power, He can tempt you and lead you astray,” the brothers sing, against a simple country lick. Then a pump organ fades in, and Ira begins the spoken word body of the song: “I attended service at a little church in the country not long ago. The prayer was led by an old country preacher who then raised his hands as everyone stood and sang: “My God is real”. A warm breeze through the open windows brought in the smell of new mown hay in a nearby field, and the singing of birds could be heard in the moment of silence, as the preacher opened his Bible to read. And then a little old man stood up, bent with age, his hair thin and white, and said: “Preacher, tell them that Satan is real too, you can hear him in songs that give praise to idols and sinful things of this world, you can see him in the destruction of homes torn apart.”
Ira tells a story within a story within a story. We are with him, then we are in the church with him, and then, as we hear this old man’s story, we are in the old man’s life. This lean piece of prose – a sermon – is equal to any literary music that I love such as Lou Reed or Patti Smith and has aged better than two other Rock examples that come to mind, Celebration of the Lizard by The Doors or By The Time I Get to Phoenix by Isaac Hayes. The reason many critics, and other listeners, have not deemed this song (and other Louvin masterpieces) is worthy of literary acknowledgement is that it seriously deals with Christian theology. It’s not that you have to believe to appreciate the song, but many of us still need to get over a bias against theological thought. Once you do, the sheer poetry of this song will leave you stunned.
One of the trademarks of some great American writers – Walt Whitman, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, William Carlos Williams, and Raymond Carver – is the directness and familiarity of the American idiom they utilize. They write how people talk; eschewing fancy language and overt multiple layers of metaphor. Their language is sparse, unencumbered, to the point. The Louvin Brothers lyrics in Satan are Real and elsewhere adopt a similar directness. They cut to the chase. While as literary as any other lyric, then and now, their merits have been rarely appreciated. Why? I would argue that it is because of unfortunate generalizations about Christian, White Southern culture as well as many critics and radio stations relegating blue grass and acoustic country – old timey – music to a musical ghetto. Sure, we can love O Brother Where Art Thou, but the music is more novelty than art. The Cohen Brothers film is not exactly free of camp when it came to “old timey” music.
Give yourself over to the sincerity of the Louvin Brothers, and you will be glad to let go of your bias. The old man continues testifying: “I know that Satan is real for once (Ira pronounces it ‘onced’, the Louvins never evade their Alabama accents) I had a happy home. I was loved and respected by my family. I was looked upon as a leader in my community. And then Satan came into my life. I grew selfish and un-neighborly. My friends turned against me, and finally my home was broken apart. My children took their paths into a world of sin.”
Louvin songs always have a twist. In I Don’t Believe You Met My Baby, a guy is love with gal, they’re at a dance but she dances with another guy, who she introduces as “my baby.” The narrator’s heart is broken until the two start laughing. She informs him the guy is actually her brother then she agrees to marry the narrator. A sadder song, A Tiny Broken Heart, depicts the harsh, inescapable reality of economic class divisions. A seven year old boy sees his that his playmate, a girl who lives next door, is moving away. The family was visited from “men from the town.” The family next door was share croppers. They have no choice but to leave. The boy is ready to “give her all my toys, that dear Santa gave and give her my pennies from piggy bank.” The listener knows nothing can stop economic inevitabilities. We see – and feel – the situation through the narrator. Our hearts break along with the young boy’s.
Those two examples reveal the “material” portion of the Louvin world, but a song like Satan is Real reveals the “nonmaterial” or spiritual realm, is another part of that same world. Louvin world is as physical as it is metaphysical. The old man in Satan is Real has destroyed his life because of Sin. Notice that the sins while vague, unspecified, they are injurious to the community – “selfish and un-neighborly” – both the self and society suffer punishment. How is that destruction – the repercussions of the sin – defined? “My friends turned against me, and finally my home was broken apart.” The final holocaust is a perversion of one of God’s original commands: be fruitful and multiply – “My children took their paths into a world of sin.”
Think about the scenario, an old man testifies in his community. He does not ask forgiveness. Instead, he issues a dire warning: his actions disrupted the social order – in other words, the entire world. He ends: “Yes, preacher, it’s sweet to know that God is real, and to know that in Him all things are possible, and we know that Heaven is a real place, where joy shall never end. But sinner friend, if you’re here today, Satan is real too, and hell is a real place, a place of everlasting punishment.”
Satan is Real explores an individual’s role in a community and how the invisible world, in this “mythology” at least, is impacted by that individual, and how as a result, that invisible world will then undermine the stability of the community.
In Satan is Real (the book), Charlie says: “Most of our gospel songs weren’t really guilt songs, but they were obvious songs. They’d tell you that if you’re a good person, a righteous person, then you can go to heaven. But if you think you can do anything you want and still go to heaven, you’re full of shit. God’s always right there when you think you’re getting away with something. There’s nothing that escapes him and nothing he doesn’t know.”
Like many, the first Louvin brother’s song I heard was The Christian Life, covered by the Byrd’s on their classic Sweet Heart of the Rodeo. I never knew it was a Louvin song until I encountered Satan is Real (the reissued CD). The Byrd’s were great, but if you listen to the two versions you notice that Roger McGuinn’s delivery is very tongue in cheek. The Louvin’s version is stronger because of their sincerity – the counter culture irony so inherent in late 60s Country Rock is completely absent.
Country gospel songs were new to me when I first got Satan is Real. The record I got next, Tragic Songs of Life (for years they were the only two CDs in print), a secular collection, is really just as good. I recommend it to every young songwriter I know, calling it the best non-Dylan collection of songs. Besides Tiny Broken Heart, they do their unforgettable take on In The Pines, a Leadbelly song, and the Louvins Knoxville Girl, a classic murder ballad. The narrator murders his lover because of her “roving eyes,” his jealousy about her infidelity, real or unreal, drags him into madness, where he his life ends in jail.
Charlie writes: “the greatest percentage of people who listen to country music, they dig those sad old songs. They always have. There’s tragedy in life, I guess is the reason. Sometimes I think there’s more tragedy than there is life. And we need those old songs, even if nobody in new country music sings them anymore.”
Charlie Louvin died in January of last year. By then I bought every Louvin CD I could find, but after his passing, I picked up the remainder of the oeuvre, although I may still be missing some early MGM records. Their recording history seems sketchy, and quite frankly, if you are looking for specific discographies, Satan is Real will not help. There’s a box set out there but it’s too expensive for me and even its completeness is in doubt.
There have been many days where I dwelt entirely in the Louvin world, listening only to their music. They are on many of my play lists. Their incandescence always improves my mood.
Satan is Real is a great read. It is one of those books you can pick up and become entranced by any random page. The life of Louvin Brothers could be a Louvin Brothers Song. The book was literarily dictated on his death bed. Charlie died, of pancreatic cancer, at the age of 83, two months after the book was completed.
Benjamin Whitmer was his confessor. Whitmer has done a wonderful job preserving the man’s voice, which is plain spoken and sensible. Charlie prefers common sense to wisdom; he is not keen on introspection, particularly when it comes to creating the actual songs. How many takes did Satan is Real take? What was the brother’s song writing process like? Well, you get no answers to such queries. What you do get is a down to earth guy who tells telling his story, thoughtfully and deliberately.
The Louvins didn’t graduate high school; they grew up in a hardscrabble farm, during the depression, where music was the only respite from labor on Sand Mountain in rural Alabama.
Making it meant driving all night from gig to gig, which ranged from pool halls to altar calls. Charlie married his first sweet heart and they remained together until his death. In the books dedication, he writes to her – with a macabre touch not out of place in Louvin world – “I prayed to God for one request, that whenever I go, I go before you.”
Ira was an alcoholic – larger then life, for sure and immensely talented. Listening to some of that Mandolin picking you realize he is one of the masters of that instrument. But he had a rage that basically cost the act gigs and opportunities. The most famous – covered in Peter Guralnick’s Elvis Presley biography – is where Ira, drunk, insults Elvis, which Charlie blames for the reason that Elvis never sang a Louvin song, even though the brothers were a favorite of his Mama’s (and Elvis loved his Mama!).
Charlie’s brother who just couldn’t get out of his own way, with the booze or the women. You can feel his sibling frustration. Many of the sore points are still tender in spite of occurring more than 50 years ago. “Ira did a lot of dumb things during this time in life, but probably the dumbest thing he ever did was to get married a third time..,.” to Faye, a woman who also an alcoholic. Later Charlie says: “I should’ve taken a shovel head and beaten the shit out of her.” Sounds like something he has probably muttered hundreds of times over the years. Whitmer’s editing for the telling, often sardonic detail, consistently entertains.
A womanizing musician with a substance abuse problem is not exactly unheard of but the paradox of Ira Louvin is his apparent hypocrisy. Louvin Brothers songs like Kneeling Drunkard’s Plea or The Drunkard’s Doom, decry not just the sinfulness of drinking, but its devastation of lives. They appeal to the Carrie Nation audience. Other songs, such as Broad Minded (“the word broad minded is spelled S-I-N), a puritan anthem, opposing social drinking, dancing and what seems like fun of any kind. In another sermon within a song, Ira quotes scripture to support his accusations.
Ira did not practice what he sang. Charlie documents his abusive relationships with co-dependent alcoholic spouses, his philandering, his run-ins with the law. One time at the sight of cops backstage Charlie says, “What has my brother done now.”
Ira was out of control. His drinking soon cost them gigs and eventually ruined their reputation with promoters, the music industry, their record label and even their audience. A half century or so might have passed, but Charlie’s resentment remains palpable. Ira warned against Satan in song, but in his life he could not resist temptation, regardless of the consequences of his actions had on his loved ones. He ended his life as one nasty drunk.
Charlie offers an intriguing insight: “The thing about Ira was that he had a gift for songwriting, true, but he also had another gift that interfered with his songwriting. It was that calling to be a preacher. He knew the Bible, and the way he wrote his songs, the material that was in the songs, the way he placed it and used it, he would been tremendous. Everybody on Sand Mountain always told me that was the cause of his drinking problem. That he was called to be a preacher, but refused, becoming a picker and grinner instead, and trying to drown out the call with liquor and women.”
There’s a lot of sadness to go around with Ira. The Louvin Brothers grew up, during the depression, in a culture where creativity and self expression were granted little esteem. Society restricted your roles – as if preaching and songwriting – spirituality or art – were absolute, either/or choices. Ira and Charlie were rural men. They did not graduate high school Their only future was to work all the time, on a Sand Mountain farm, like their father. Music was their only other option. But more than just the more appealing career choice, you do not make the kind of music they did without being driven. The Louvin Brother songs come from that human wellspring – the deep muddy river – they are some of the greatest songs in the American canon and the stories they tell are universal and timeless. They are the country music equivalent of Sherwood Anderson (Winesburg, Ohio) or Flannery O’Conner.
In Satan Is Real, you get the feeling neither of them quite knew what to make of their accomplishment. Their upbringing may not have enabled them to be fully aware of the achievement’s extent. For Charlie, picking and grinning was a good job that gave him the ability to raise a family. Ira seemed uninterested in stability, his talent never brought
him satisfaction, much less peace. He was haunted by the notion that art – and that very talent he worked so hard at mastering – may be just another “sinful thing” of this world. Great art does take a human toll to be created and maybe Ira just paid a bigger price. Well, as the cover of the book proclaims: “A real life Cain & Abel Story,” and that’s sadly, what it proved to be. In this case, Abel lives and writes the history.
The Louvin Brothers break up during the early 60s and by 1964, Ira dies in a car accident. They never really reconciled. Their family remained torn apart.
If Ira only lived a few years longer, maybe he would have gotten the help for his addiction that Johnny Cash and George Jones eventually found. Maybe, like old bluesmen whose careers were renewed by the Blues Revival headed by Brits such as the Rolling Stones, the Animals and Eric Clapton, when country rock hit it big a similar rediscovery could have elevated the Louvins career. Gram Parsons was a famous fan. The influence of the Louvin Brothers is apparent in the late 60s Country Rock. The Louvin songs have that share the rustic surrealism of the Basement Tapes, John Wesley Harding, Big Pink, The Band (brown album), Working Man’s Dead and American Beauty. But “real” country music was ignored by FM rock stations of the era, so it would take another few decades before the Louvin music would become widely available, as Americana and Roots redefined musical categories, breaking down many previous divisions.
Alas, Ira recorded one solo record, which is mostly mediocre. Charlie Louvin fared a little better – he had more hits as a solo artist he points out – and his songs sound like a competent poor man’s version of George Jones. He has this one song I dig, “See the Big Man Cry,” where a boy keeps seeing a man following him, crying. The man is the boy’s father. His parents are estranged. A nice country weeper about a child too young to understand a restraining order. In the 00s, a small record label based in the East Village released some solo records, mostly Charlie re-recording old Louvin Brother classics. A tribute record was also released. All pleasant listening, but Charlie’s voice was cracked, his tenor a rasp.
In spite of some high points, the solo work is strangely distant from the Louvin Brothers sound. The music, the attitude, the types of songs, of the solo work is vastly different from the duo. The incandescent was lost forever.
Duos – especially brothers, such as the Delmore Brothers, whom the Louvins did a tribute record to – were mainstays of mid-20th century country music. The Louvins were popular during the tail end of that trend, but by the 60s, the end of their career, interest in this type of music had evaporated. Not only were the Louvin Brothers the last, and not only were they the best, their symbiosis created a world listeners will be entering for decades to come. I love that world, it’s another Invisible Republic that reveals truths about the human condition and life in America.