Satan Is Real
The Ballad of the Louvin Brothers
By Charlie Louvin, with Benjamin Whitmer
For a country duo that got its start doing ultra-pious gospel - singing about God and mother, faith, patriotism and honor -- the Louvin Brothers sure weren’t saints. That was particularly true of the mandolin-playing and high-harmony-singing Ira, a serious womanizer and a major-league booze hound. He was known to smash shit, too. That’s the picture you get from Charlie Louvin’s new memoir Satan Is Real. The memoir, which was completed (with the help of writer Benjamin Whitmer) just months before Charlie Louvin’s January 2011 death at the age of 83, is a breeze to read, divided as it is into bite-size chapters that range from the duo’s rustic roots in Sand Mountain, Alabama, through their struggles breaking into the Nashville-centric country-music business, and the brothers’ subsequent falling out, just prior to Ira’s death, in a car wreck in 1965.
The Louvin Brothers were incredibly influential, and they remain so -- inspiring everyone from Elvis to Johnny Cash and, perhaps most notably, Gram Parsons, of the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers, who in turn helped introduce the Louvins to a whole new generation of listeners and players like Emmylou Harris, Will Oldham, Jay Farrar and others. The brothers sang air-tight harmonies, with their paired vocals being both stark in an old-time way, yet velvety and acrobatic, sometimes stratospheric. In the late ‘50s and early ‘60s the Louvin Brothers mapped out a path extending from traditional mountain music to the dreamy pop harmonies that bands like the Beach Boys would eventually perfect. They always said their singing took much of its character from Sacred Harp choral singing, which is a kind of shape-note hymn singing with its own distinctive performance style and repertoire. And the Louvins represent the pinnacle of a whole line of brother duo acts that included the Delmore Brothers and the Blue Sky Boys, going on to influence later acts like the Everly Brothers.
As Charlie tells it, the Louvins had a rough upbringing, picking cotton until their hands bled and their backs hurt, and cowering from a father who could be frighteningly violent, beating Ira (who seemed to get the most abuse) with “a chunk of firewood, a piece of furniture, whatever.” And the language is pretty raw. “Just a little fuck up could get you beat black and blue,” writes Charlie. The brothers inherited the fighting gene, too. The book begins with Charlie opening a can of whoop-ass on Ira after Ira called their mom a bitch. “I can guarantee you the fucking fight was on then,” he writes. “I beat the shit out of him right there in the front yard.”
So much for brotherly love.
And it’s not like the boys didn’t do plenty to seriously piss off their father around the farm. One story involves Charlie and Ira getting a bulldog to breed with one of their father’s beloved female bird dogs who was in heat and being kept away from other animals to insure a good litter. Another involved their basically getting a cow killed by letting a too-big bull mount her. Come to thing of it, there’s a surprising amount of slightly creepy animal-husbandry shenanigans.
The brothers were encouraged to sing, and they learned some old songs from their mother. But they weren’t exactly born performers. The only way the two could be coaxed into singing for company was if they hid under a bed as boys. Early on Charlie makes it seem like half the reason they wanted to be performers was to get a fancy car like the one they saw Roy Acuff riding in when he performed in a nearby town. As Charlie tells it, their decision to take up instruments was one made less out of personal musical interest and more out of practical business logic. Ira said that if they were going to be like the Monroe Brothers or the Blue Sky Boys, they’d need to have one of them playing guitar and the other playing mandolin. (Their dad played a little banjo.) Charlie makes it sound like he was forced to learn to play guitar against his will. He didn’t exactly like Ira’s plan. “I would have rather somebody pissed down my leg than told me something like that,” he writes in typical fashion. “We were two determined little bastards,” he writes elsewhere.
Considering how near-perfect the Louvin Brothers sound, it’s a head-scratcher to read about their struggles to crack into the Nashville scene. Their first paying gig was at a fair, in the middle of a kind of mule-drawn merry-go-round, providing the soundtrack music. They played radio shows and fairs in Knoxville, Chattanooga, Memphis and even in Birmingham, Alabama and spots in North Carolina and Virginia before eventually getting an in at the Grand Ole Opry. Spotting talent has never been the music business’s strong suit, I guess.
Satan Is Real chronicles the transition the Louvin Brothers made from gospel to more secular music. “Our gospel music made everyone feel guilty,” writes Charlie. Well, when you write songs about wearing “Satan’s Jeweled Crown” and about being brought to judgment in an atomic fireball (“Great Atomic Power”) or about how hell is “a real place of everlasting punishment,” it’s understandable that some folks might have felt, you know, fearful for their immortal souls.
One wishes Charlie had more insights to offer about how Ira did that songwriting. (Charlie only takes credit for having a catchy phrase or an idea here or there.) It’s clear that Ira didn’t think much of Ira’s songwriting skills or of his ability to shoulder a solo act. Despite a successful career in the business, one senses that not getting Ira’s approval was something that ate at him, in much the same way that seeking their father’s approval ate at Ira.
Satan Is Real does provide an interesting refutation or clarification of one of the more famous incidents involving the Louvins. The brothers had toured a little with Elvis Presley early in his career. Elvis (and his mother) was evidently a fan of the Louvins. But an old story had it that while backstage after one of those shows, Elvis had expressed his love for country gospel and singing hymns, to which Ira (drunk) had said something about Elvis being a “white nigger.” Versions of the story have Ira attempting to choke and fight Elvis. (Ira apparently had a tendency to smash his mandolin if it went out of tune or ticked him off in other ways, so the claims of violence don’t seem implausible.) Charlie dismisses all of that, but he does repeat the racist insult. Charlie also claims that the squabble with Elvis was probably why the King never recorded a Louvin Brothers song (which would have made the brothers rich), though he was a big fan, and god knows he recorded tons of other lesser material. Though it could have been the fact that the Louvins had insisted that Elvis’s manager, Colonel Tom Parker, pay them when he wasn’t inclined to. Colonel Tom Parker was a “fourteen-carat asshole,” according to Charlie.
It’s funny that Ira might have fought with Elvis over forsaking his religious roots, because that was something that agonized Ira as well. Some of the Louvin Brothers’ most haunting songs -- like “When I Stop Dreaming,” “You’re Running Wild” and “I Wish It Had Been a Dream” -- are actually love songs, songs about longing, and cheating and sadness. It’s a little spooky, too, that the brothers recorded a number of songs about drinking (“Drunkard’s Dream”) and the dangers of drunk driving (“I Didn’t Hear Nobody Pray” and “The Price of the Bottle”) since Ira, his wife and a couple of friends, all died in a collision involving a drunk driver.
Those tensions -- between piety and earthly pleasures -- tugged at Ira until the end, evidently. Charlie tells the story about how Ira, who many had expected to become a preacher, was considering becoming a tent-revival leader after the duo broke up and just prior to his death. It’s proof that the devotion and the worldly pressures expressed in their music were both real, which is one reason why the music of the Louvin Brothers remains so powerful over 50 years after it was made.
At the end of his life, Charlie still wondered how his career and the songs he played with Ira would be viewed by god. He said he doubted god would give him any credit for writing devotional music. “Most of our gospel songs weren’t really guilt songs, but they were obvious songs,” he writes. “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.”
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