2012-10-14 15.30.20

There’s no getting around the theology of the Louvin Brothers. It’s right there in the title of their most famous— or infamous— record, Satan is Real. Red and orange flames lick the darkness. And the accuser himself stares us down through empty yellow eyes, a crude statue standing atop a hill of burning tires.

Satan is real, working in spirit…

You can see him and hear him in this world everyday

The brothers’ voices, so matter-of-fact, are barely distinguishable from each other. There’s no fire in their tone. There’s no brimstone in their inflections. Salvation and damnation are as natural as eating and sleeping. And perhaps that is what makes their delivery all the more terrifying.

It’s true that the music on this record has been somewhat overshadowed by that very peculiar picture— the two brothers standing beneath a homemade devil statue, clad in white and breathing in those tire fumes. Their arms are outstretched and pleading us to follow a better road. But put aside your visual concerns (and possibly even your theological ones), and what emerges is a striking, pull-no-punches country masterpiece.   The playing is tight, a skilled Nashville band hitting all the right notes on all the right instruments, moving from sad county waltzes to tent revival celebrations.

The brothers had started off in gospel music, prompted by producer Ken Nelson, but had to fight to move beyond the genre. Charlie, always the straight talker, looked back on those years in his memoir. He writes, “Even though we were singing more and more secular songs, and making good money at it, we never did stop doing the gospel stuff. We wrote a lot of songs that got used for altar calls, and I still get fan mail from people who swear up and down that the Louvin Brothers music saved their life. I doubt if God’ll give us any credit for that though. I fear that we have to do more than write words for the big reward, but it was nice to know that our songs helped a person or two”. It was a few years into their “secular” career that Satan is Real was recorded.

*   *   *

The Louvin Brothers’ life was as harsh as the religion they sang about: hot days in the Alabama cotton fields; cruel beatings at the hand of an abusive father. Ira, the oldest, took the brunt of the violence, and perhaps grew angrier because of it. By some accounts he was a nonbeliever, who early in life was destined to be a preacher. When he chose music over the Good Book, his life took a hard spiral into alcoholism and bitterness that he never recovered from. Perhaps he did believe. Perhaps he drank to escape a chasing God, and lashed out not at his wives or his brother or his band mates, but at the One he was running from.

Whatever the case, a Cain and Abel-like mythology surrounds the two brothers. Charlie was the good, temperate family man. Ira was the resentful, angry womanizer; known to smash his mandolin in fits of rage. As the Louvins career rose in the 50s and early 60s, and fame took them from Louisiana to Nashville to the stage of the Opry, Ira slowly burned every bridge that led them there, until their partnership dissolved in 1963.

It was only 5 years earlier that the brothers had stood together among those burning tires and that peculiar stature, fighting the darkness with their extraordinary harmonies.

*   *   *

In 1965, Ira would leave with his fourth wife to play a solo show in Kansas City. Sometime before he left, he told his mother he was going to use the money from the show to buy a tent and finally start preaching.

Ira was only 41, but he had lived a few lifetimes by then. As a child, his father had beaten him with a fence post until he had lost consciousness. During his second marriage, he had been shot six times by a wife after he tried to strangle her with a telephone cord. And through it all, he had slowly sunk to the burning depths of alcoholism, fighting and cussing and smashing mandolins all the way down. Maybe, one hopes, he was about to crawl out again, and find a little redemption amid the cruel world he was able to characterize so well in his songs. And perhaps, before the shattering of glass and the collision of metal that robbed him of any future, he had found that redemption, or saw that light, or heard those angels rejoicing.

The irony wasn’t lost on anyone. Driving home from that Kansas City show, his car was hit head-on by a drunk driver, killing him and his wife instantly. It was a story as tragic as any the Louvins sang about. Bill Monroe gave a mournful rendition of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” at the funeral. The voices of Charlie and Ira would never merge and beguile again.

Charlie would go onto a prolific solo career, eventually fighting the same fight that many of the country legends do— finding relevance amidst the harsh light of younger Nashville stars. But just like Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn, and many others, Charlie re-emerged in his old age as a seasoned county icon, recording a string of albums at the end of his life for independent label, Tompkins Square Records. His voice isn’t as recognizable without the ghostly harmonies of brother Ira, but Charlie stuck to each word like it was Biblical truth, and the music— love songs and murder ballads, and of course, gospel hymns— continued to pull no punches. It was as matter-of-fact as it was in the 1956, reflecting a faith that had been callused by death and disease and every kind of hardship, but alive and real nonetheless. He writes, “…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”.

Charlie, singing and playing till the end, died in 2011 after a long fight with pancreatic cancer.

Information was gathered from Charlie Louvin’s autobiography, Satan is Real, and Charles Wolfe’s In Close Harmony: the Story of the Louvin Brothers.