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.

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2013-05-05 09.41.38

Last night, under a sky full of stars, I drove the gravel back roads that lead to my grandparents’ house.  I followed a barbed wire fence that vanished and reappeared in the dark fields along the road.  A rusted oil well stood silent on the other side of the fence, and beyond it were trees and hills that I had explored tirelessly through youthful summers. The fence gave way to houses and garages and allotments of land that had been parceled out a few years back, breaking up a good chunk of the forest of my childhood.

It’s like that in a lot of places these days.  Economies ebb and flow.  Demands and resources change.  Fertile towns go dry and family farms go under.

I’ve had fits of nostalgia driving those roads before, but not last night.  I was listening to Wesley Randolph Eader’s album, Of Old It Was Recorded, and perhaps it gave me a sense of the eternal, and a hope that some things never pass away.  Void of any sort of contemporary sheen, Eader’s songs of blood and redemption, set against gentle Appalachian melodies, are something out of time. Like the old trees that still stand among the model homes and driveways, the album is unabashedly “old-sounding” amidst a brave new world.

Eader, reflective and unassuming, has always felt like an old soul tossed into the wrong generation.  Growing up the son of a pastor in a small Washington town, he fled to Portland, Oregon in his early 20s in hopes of finding some anonymity.  There, in that oasis of diversity, conformity out of the question, his identity began to take shape.  He found solace in the old timey music he had brushed against in trips to Tennessee.  And he found a renewing of his spirit in the worshipping assemblies he met there.

It was ministry that took the Eader family to the West Coast in the first place; first to Oregon, where Wesley was born, and then to the shipping town of Kalama, Washington.  Though Wesley felt the strain of expectations that most ministerial families face, he also saw the deepness of his family’s professed faith as well.  He says, “I think the most memorable moments from my youth, those that impact me still today, are was when I would witness the change that occurs when people encounter the gospel for the first time”.  His father would sometimes feed and open their home to the lonely Chinese shipmen, far away from home and language, who would make port in Kalama.  The Eader family would tour the ships and get to know the freight workers.  Wesley would witness the grit and beauty of his father’s hospitality. “I think seeing the gospel have a positive impact in peoples lives is what allows me to continue to believe in its power”.

Eader carried those ideas with him to Portland, where he began to carve out his own path of faith, experiencing God in new and unusual ways.  In a small, packed room, stacks of Bibles and hymnals piled about, Wesley and his friends would pray and sing for hours; rejoicing together, struggling together, and grappling with the great Unknown together.  He says, “It really felt like we were in the middle of a genuine revival”.

It was in this time of intense worship, that Eader began to take seriously the idea of gospel music.  He reflects, “I had kinda told myself that all the best gospel songs/hymns had already been written…that nobody could say anything better than the great hymnists like Watts, Cowper or Crosby and no one could perform them better than guys like Johnny Cash or the Stanely Brothers”.  The modern Christian music scene, much of it a repackaging of faith with radio hooks, didn’t sit well with Eader.  Taking faith–that eternal idea that outweighs and outreaches everything that we know–and trying to box it up…there’s oftentimes very little honesty in something like that, and it gave him a bad taste in his mouth for gospel music.

But the more he thought about it, the more he started to wonder: Isn’t gospel music the forefather of our American music traditions? Our country and blues and folk music…weren’t they born out of the gospel tradition?  When did gospel start following trends as opposed to setting them? When did it get turned around?

In that small, packed room of worship, Wesley witnessed the power that a well-written hymn can have when the poetry and theology is taken seriously again.  Sometimes those old hymns get a little too embedded in our lives.  Sometimes they get a little too familiar, like children’s songs.  But strip those melodies down to a single guitar, strumming a few chords; put a weathered weight-of-the-world voice behind the words…and you can feel that fire again.  You can’t help but sing along.

Eader’s songs are definitely imbedded in those classic traditions of gospel songwriting.  He doesn’t shy away from the bloody imagery, or paper over those grand themes of resurrection and atonement.  But he also writes through the lens of his own Christ-experiences; and emphasizes, first and foremost, the love of Christ.

Oh perfect love come near to me

From hatred let me part

So I can bless my enemies

With glimpses of Thy heart

The recording process was pretty modest.  Recorded by Blitzen Trapper’s Eric Early, they set up a microphone in Earley’s living room. Wesley whittled his catalogue down to 10 songs, and for the next two hours, using just his voice and a guitar, they ran through them all.   Afterward, Early and a few musicians added strings and other subtle instruments to fill out some of the songs.

But despite those little touches, there’s very little polish to be found on the record.  Though probably not the case, the album sounds like it was recorded the old fashioned way, long before tape and digital allowed for second chances and manipulated files.  There’s a lived-in feeling to it, and a delicate echo that permeates.    Eader sings each song as if he’s been singing them forever…as if they were passed down like precious heirlooms, or discovered on one of A.P. Carter’s song expeditions.

And that valley may be dark

Over all the earth, extended

But the love of God is brighter

And its path cannot be bended…

Eader explains that, “We live in an age marked by anxiety and uncertainty, often burdened the past and fearful of the future…Many of us fail to find value in the present moment because we fear it will be forgotten forever, but the gospel teaches us the opposite: that the present moment is holy because it is marked by eternity”.   There’s a hope there for someone like Eader, whose heart lay in centuries long past.  And there’s a hope there for the rest of us nomads as well, whose attachments get swept away in the currents of progress.

I think it was that, or something close to it, that gave me a sense of comfort on my back road drive.  I still walk those woods sometimes. I still climb those hills and cross those streams, moving among the tall grass and broken branches.  But 1988 is gone, and so is 1938.  You have to hold onto the things that last a little longer…songs and traditions and the redeeming blood of Christ.

Of Old It Was Recorded can be found at Amazon, Bandcamp, and most online retailers; as well as noisetrade.

References 

Eader, Wesley Randolph. Email interview. July, 2013.

 

I remember crying when Johnny Cash died.  Not at first.  I spent the morning in a sort of impassive state, travelling from school building to school building as if the world were an unfamiliar place.   I was at college, living alone in a dorm at Kent State.  I had come downstairs to the lobby and if I remember right, Cash was playing through the speakers, on the radio.  When I heard it, I knew that something was wrong.  I knew that Johnny Cash wouldn’t be on the radio on any normal day.  Sure enough, when the song ended, the deejay announced that the man in black had died.

It was a Friday.  Soon after, I ate and went to class.  I floated across the sidewalks.  I was quiet and blank.  After class had let out, I gathered my stuff, got in my car and headed home for the weekend.  I put the Johnny Cash mix I had compiled of my favorite songs into the CD player.  A few songs in, before I had reached the interstate, perhaps at “Big River”, I started bawling.

Though there were many sides to Cash, there are two that stand out distinctly for me.  The first is of the legend, the larger than life icon who sang of murder and sin with complete conviction.  He was a man, no, a mythological creature, who burned down forests in stoned rampages.  This Cash is universally known and worshipped as a rock star.  The monument of this Cash will tower over the world until there is no world.

The second side is smaller, less distinct, but probably more accurate.  This Cash was warm, thoughtful, and deeply spiritual.  He collected books on theology.  He made frequent trips to the Holy Land, studying the ancestors of his faith.  Those closest to him testify of this Cash and it was this Cash, who, near the end of his life, laid aside his black coat, his legend, and recorded what I believe to be one of his greatest contributions to American music, My Mother’s Hymn Book.

Cash had recorded a number of gospel records over his long career, but the 15 songs of My Mother’s Hymn Book (a collections of gospel standards like “I’ll Fly Away” and “Softly and Tenderly”) can be traced back to his earliest memories.  They are songs that gave strength to the Cash family as they toiled in the cotton fields of Arkansas.  They are what shaped the young J.R. into the booming singer that he would become.   And they are songs that Cash drew upon when he found himself in the lowest depths of his addictions.

Come home, come home

You who are weary, come home…

I can imagine him, in his darkest hours, when voice and body were wrecked, recalling those words.

…Earnestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling,

Calling, O sinner, come home.

     Cash’s drug problems have been reiterated often.  After making a name for himself at Sam Phillips’s Sun Studio, Cash moved to Columbia Records and very quickly became a megastar.  To endure the long hours of touring and recording, he began taking amphetamines.  The pills wrecked havoc on his mind and body.  He grew agitated and restless.  His frame became gaunt, his eyes sunken.

The deeper he sank into his addiction, the more unstable his behavior became.  In 1965, he famously busted the stage lights of the Grand Ole Opry with his microphone stand.  Upon walking offstage, he met the Opry’s manager, who politely asked him never to return.

Cash’s life continued its long spiral downward until, in 1967, he decided to crawl into the bowels of NIckajack Cave, in Tennessee, and await death.   For hours he moved deep into the labyrinth of tunnels, until the batteries of his flashlight died and the darkness overtook him.  He recalled in his book, “Cash: A Biography”, that as he was laying there,

I felt something very powerful start to happen to me, a sensation of utter peace, clarity, and sobriety.  I didn’t believe it at first.  I couldn’t’ understand it.  How, after being awake for so long and driving my body so hard and talking so many pills-dozens of them, scores, even hundreds- could I possibly feel all right?  The feeling persisted, though, and then my mind started focusing on God…I became conscious of a very clear, simple idea: I was not in charge of my destiny.  I was not in charge of my own death.  I was going to die at God’s time, not mine.  I hadn’t prayed over my decision to seek death in the cave, but that hadn’t stopped God from intervening.

In complete darkness, perhaps hundreds of yards, perhaps a mile, deep inside a maze of caverns, he somehow, miraculously, crawled back out.

He would continue to struggle with his addictions for years afterward, but through war and through battle, his faith would once again be restored, helped along by little miracles.

One such miracle happened in New York, probably sometime in the 1970s, when he and June Carter walked past First Baptist Church.  They decided to enter when somewhere in the congregation, a young voice shouted, “JOHNNY CASH! Johnny Cash has come to church with me! I told you!  I told you he was coming!”

The young boy, mentally disabled, had told everyone earlier that Johnny Cash would be coming with him to church that day.

Cash wasn’t shy when it came to his faith.  He wrote a book about Paul, whose conversion he identified with.  He made a movie about Jesus, whose life he tried, and often failed, to emulate.  “Walk the Line” sort of downplayed this side of his life, in favor of the legend.  Nickajack Cave isn’t even mentioned (which I always found odd, being that it’s such a cinematic event).  But there’s no doubt, from what he’s written in both his autobiographies, that God, the God of his mother, the God of his youth, was the ultimate redeemer of his brokenness.  And it was to this God, and of this God that he sang in My Mother’s Hymn Book.  Only this time, he had been around long enough to know the seriousness of the words.

I’m sort of ambivalent about many of the later records Cash recorded for American Recordings.  A lot of the songs are crowded with instruments and guest stars, where few are needed; and they seem to perpetuate the myth of Cash.  I suppose that’s why I’m drawn to My Mother’s Hymn Book, where the myth is forsaken.  The producer, Rick Rubin, and the engineer, David Ferguson, are doing what musicologists like Alan Lomax and John Cohen and Mike Seeger did in the middle of the century.  They are capturing an important voice before it’s gone; documenting a musical tradition before it is lost to history.  The only things we hear on the record are the simple strums of Cash’s guitar, and a voice that still booms like thunder; that says, with all certainty,

Though all hell assail me, I shall not be moved.

     Of the 40 plus albums that Cash recorded over his life, he called this one his favorite.  He sings from a worn book of hymns that his mother passed on to him.  He sings of the faraway shore and of life eternal.  He sings not as the legend or as the undying outlaw, but as a man humbled and frail before his God, the weight of death and glory on his shoulders.

I think it was this Cash that I cried for so many years ago.  It was this human Cash that I understood.

 

Information gathered from Cash’s two autobiographies, “Man In Black” and “Cash: the Autobiography”, as well as the liner notes to My Mother’s Hymn Book.