Satan is Real: The Ballad of the Louvin BrothersFebruary 19, 2012
I wriote a little bit about this book in my column in today’s Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. But it deserves a fuller review. Hence this.
Satan Is Real: The Ballad of the Louvin Brothers
By Charlie Louvin with Benjamin Whitmer.
Illustrated. 297 pp. Igniter/It Books/HarperCollins Publishers. $22.99.
By Alex Abramovich of the New York Times Book Review
By Charlie Louvin’s own account, people who saw the Louvin Brothers perform were mystified by the experience. Ira Louvin was a full head taller than his younger brother, played the mandolin like Bill Monroe and sang in an impossibly high, tense, quivering tenor. Charlie strummed a guitar, grinned like a vaudevillian and handled the bottom register. But every so often, in the middle of a song, some hidden signal flashed, and the brothers switched places — with Ira swooping down from the heights, and Charlie angling upward — and even the most careful listeners would lose track of which man was carrying the lead. This was more than close-harmony singing; each instance was an act of transubstantiation. “It baffled a lot of people,” Charlie Louvin explains in his crackling new memoir. “We could change in the middle of a word. Part of the reason we could do that was that we’d learned to have a good ear for other people’s voices when we sang Sacred Harp. But the other part is that we were brothers.”
Ira died in a car wreck in 1965. Charlie — who rolled his first cigarette at the age of 5 — died last year at 83, just two months after talking the book out. (The contributions of his co-author, Benjamin Whitmer, are pretty much invisible, which makes them difficult to praise and all the more praiseworthy.) True to his subtitle, Charlie tells Ira’s story, as well as his own, devoting 47 chapters to their shared lives and careers, and just three more to the years that followed Ira’s death. He is profane, piquant and brutally honest in ways that are sure to offend the country music establishment but might have delighted Ira, who was no less of a demon than the ones the Louvins — who cut their teeth as a gospel duo and never really left the church behind — so often sang about.
Charlie and Ira came up hard, on a tiny, Depression-era cotton farm in southern Appalachia. Their mother taught them songs from the Sacred Harp hymnal, while their father worked and beat them, mercilessly, until they felt they had no choice but to sing their way off the land. “We were two determined little bastards,” Louvin recalls. “We were no good at quitting at all. Whether or not he meant to, I’d say that’s one of the greatest gifts Papa gave us.”
That gift (a great inspiration to the Everly Brothers, the Byrds and many other harmony singers who followed in their footsteps) carried the Louvins through two difficult decades — it took them years to make it, and just as they did, Elvis Presley came along and swept the music world they’d known aside. The ups and downs were bad for Ira, who’d gotten the worst of his father’s beatings and turned into a mean-spirited, self-destructive drunk. But they’re good for the book, which is full of fistfights, road stories and behind-the-scenes looks at fellow travelers: Presley, Hank Williams, Roy Acuff, Johnny Cash, Little Jimmy Dickens and not a few others. In one chapter, titled “Duets,” Louvin recalls the Delmore, Monroe, Wilburn, Everly and Bolick brothers (the last performed as the Blue Sky Boys) — “duets that put out the most beautiful music you could imagine, but when they weren’t onstage, they wouldn’t speak to each other. And they wouldn’t speak to you, either, if you happened to like the other one.”
“Somehow,” he says, “Ira and I managed to remain some kind of friends.” If so, it was despite Ira’s own best efforts to ruin every relationship in sight. One night, drunk, he said a crude, racist thing, ensuring that Presley, who’d called the brothers “his favorite duet” and opened for Ira and Charlie on one of his first tours, would never record “The Christian Life,” “Satan Is Real” or any other Louvin Brothers song. (“If I had to guess, I’d say that one statement by Ira cost the Louvin Brothers music catalog 2 or 3 million dollars,” Charlie says.) On other nights, Ira smashed and stomped his mandolin to pieces (he’d later glue it back together), fought with drunks in the audience or simply failed to show up, costing the brothers top-tier bookings and getting them banned from their regular, hard-earned slot on the Grand Ole Opry. “It was an ugly thing when he drank,” Charlie recalls, “and there was no fun in it.”
And then there was the womanizing and spousal abuse. In February 1963, Ira Louvin wrapped a telephone cord around his wife’s neck. She shot him six times with a .22-caliber pistol, and when the police arrived on the scene she was said to have told them, “If the blankety-blank don’t die, I’ll shoot him again.” Ira lived, and Charlie stuck by him (and, amazingly, the wife) and ignored Ira’s threats to quit the duet. But the Louvin Brothers broke up that year.
Ira was traveling with a new wife (his fourth) and another couple on the night of his wreck. Atypically, according to Charlie, Ira — who had a DUI warrant out for his arrest — seems to have been sober that night, while the driver of the car that hit him was “nine times over the legal limit for drunkenness.” Oddly, given his habit of smashing mandolins, Ira’s new mandolin — a four-stringed, electric instrument he’d designed himself — was “the only thing that wasn’t smashed to splinters.”