Reviewed: Satan is Real: The Ballad of the Louvin Brothers by Charlie Louvin with Benjamin Witmer
(Harper Collins, 2012)
Although he bragged on them every time they played the Grand Ole Opry, the Louvin Brothers’ sharecropping father still had a hard time thinking that what they did was a real job compared to the backbreaking work in the fields that he knew. So, one season, when it was “laying by time,” Ira and Charlie invited their father to go on tour with them in their 1956 Cadillac limo. The tour took them to five shows—from Alabama to Miami, New Orleans, Corpus Christi, and back—with no sleep-stops, and, as Charlie Louvin says in his memoir, “barely time to shave my face in the nearest creek” before the show. “It may not have been as hard as digging ditches or some other ways of life, but if you did it right, it was plenty hard.” After that tour, their father never doubted whether what Ira and Charlie did was real work.
As with most memoirs of a life in music, Charlie Louvin’s Satan is Real: The Ballad of the Louvin Brothers follows a trajectory of struggle and success. While this is Charlie Louvin’s story, it seems inevitable that his memoir would focus on the act he had with his brother, Ira, often considered the greatest country duo of all time, despite the fact that Charlie Louvin had more hits as a solo artist than with the Louvin Brothers.
The brothers’ unorthodox close harmonies—they would sometimes exchange parts in the middle of a song—preserved the old-time flavor of the music while adapting to the fast-evolving country styles of the 1950s. A major influence on, and an inspiration to, everyone from The Everly Brothers to Emmylou Harris, The Flying Burrito Brothers and beyond, The Louvin Brothers’ songs have been covered and performed by artists as varied as Ray Charles, Gillian Welch, Uncle Tupelo, Hank Williams III, and The Raconteurs. While the most influential Louvin Brothers cheerleader remains Gram Parsons, who championed their sound and recorded several of their songs both as a solo artist and with The Byrds, The Louvin Brothers’ legacy rests with nearly every artist who ever sang a country-style harmony.
Appropriately, the book takes its name from Satan is Real, The Louvin Brothers’ 1959 LP that was as remarkable for its cover (a sixteen-foot plywood Satan standing in a homemade hell) as it was for its legendary collection of songs, which included the title track, The Carter Family’s “Kneeling Drunkard’s Plea,” and “The Christian Life.” The popularity of this gospel follow-up to their highly successful first secular album might have been because, as Charlie points out, “Most of our gospel songs weren’t really guilt songs, they were obvious songs...if you think you can do anything you want and still go to heaven, you’re full of shit.” The book’s allusion to Satan and the seminal album could not be more appropriate.
From the beginning of the book, Charlie establishes a counterpoint between the triumphant and the tragic, between the musical rise of the brothers as they escape the oppression of their hardscrabble Alabama upbringing and the decline and fall of Ira, a brilliant songwriter who swayed between damnation and redemption more often than Johnny Cash. Besides the erratic behavior brought on by his alcoholism, Ira’s third wife shot and nearly killed him after he tried to strangle her with a telephone cord. In 1965, Ira and his fourth wife were killed in a horrific car crash soon after Charlie decided he had had enough of Ira’s behavior and broke up the duo to pursue a solo career. Still, while taking his share of the credit for the Louvin Brothers’ success, Charlie is more than generous when acknowledging Ira’s musical genius. The Ballad of the Louvin Brothers is as much the story of Charlie’s suffering, torn between his loyalty to his brother and the “suffocating” nature of their relationship. Ira’s demons, though spiritually based, manifested in the physical world. Charlie’s are trials of a more biblical nature.
Charlie writes with a candor often missing from memoirs focused on country music. He is blunt, and he can be coarse—by page two, we have a “Goddamn it,” a, “Will you shut up, bitch,” three “shit”[s] and one “fucking,” although in fairness, a couple of these were quotes from brother Ira. Charlie offers up the obligatory Hank Williams anecdotes, but tells of Hank lying in his own puke, passed out in a Shreveport gutter outside The Louisiana Hayride (a country-music radio and television show). There is Louvin describing Colonel Tom Parker as “a potbellied pig,” probably the most polite thing he has to say about Elvis’s manager. There is the time Ira cussed out Elvis as well as Charlie’s unique theory on Elvis’s death.
Charlie tells of the brothers’ ascent that began as sidemen with Smilin’ Eddie Hill, the daily radio shows, and the endless touring with little more than pep pills for nourishment. There are the shenanigans of the brothers as children on a farm in Sand Mountain, Alabama, where their stern father, though presented as a strict disciplinarian, becomes quite sympathetic considering the stunts the boys pulled in a time when a tenant farmer earned maybe $200 a year: ruining his hound; ruining a heifer; taking sharecropping money meant for singing lessons and spending it on candy and tobacco.
In the more touching vein, Charlie tells of his Mama teaching him and his brother “Mary of the Wild Moor,” and how they developed their unique and, eventually, highly influential and unorthodox harmony style after watching a girl singing in a Sacred Harp church. He tells how they gave the fourteen-year-old Johnny Cash a free seat to a show in Dyess, Arkansas, when they found him hanging around outside listening through the window, much as they had listened to Roy Acuff through the window when Acuff played in Sand Mountain when they were kids. Years after Ira’s death, Charlie gave Kris Kristofferson his first break.
Besides the tragedy of Ira, the anecdotes alone offer significance to any person interested in the anthropology of Americana music. Magnanimous without feigning and brusque without malice, Charlie Louvin’s clear-eyed commentary is straightforward and unapologetic. Charlie closes with some less-than-complimentary comments of the changes wrought in country music as well as the Grand Ole Opry. While he acknowledges that he didn’t carry much clout in his later years, he says, “They’d be happy if every one of us old-timers dropped dead tomorrow. But I’m gonna be just like a bad tooth. I’m gonna hang in there so’s I can annoy as many of them as I can.”
Charlie Louvin and Whitmer completed the book a mere two months before Charlie’s death (due to complications from pancreatic cancer), Satan is Real: The Ballad of the Louvin Brothers is about as complete a memoir as can be found, and as the saying goes, a man on the gallows can afford to tell the truth.