A review of “Satan is Real: The Ballad of the Louvin Brothers”
by Marianne Worthington
The first distinctive quality about Satan Is Real: The Ballad of the Louvin Brothers, Charlie Louvin’s autobiography with Benjamin Whitmer, published just months after his death last year, is the physical book itself. Readers who study this volume on an electronic reader will be denied all the corporeal pleasures of holding this cleverly designed book, which resembles a 10-cent pulp fiction classic (jacketless hardback), complete with enticing endorsements and outrageous artwork. In this case the artwork is the same as the Louvin Brothers’ 1958 classic album Satan Is Real (more on that a little later).
The second cool thing about Satan Is Real: The Ballad of the Louvin Brothers (Igniter/It Books/HarperCollins Publishers, 2012, 308 pp., $22.99) is its spoken word style, as if Charlie Louvin is sitting next to you calling up story after story of the tumultuous episodes that defined his life and work as a professional musician with his brother Ira. And there are some saucy tales in this compact collection of 50 short chapters.
Satan Is Real follows the pattern of autobiographies like Coal Miner’s Daughter (Loretta Lynn), Pressing On (Roni Stoneman) and Johnny Cash: The Autobiography. Charlie Louvin is presented as chief writer and narrator, although Benjamin Whitmer’s invaluable contributions as ghostwriter and editor are present in the best unobtrusive ways.
Charlie Louvin speaks not so much in sentences as in whole stories, in a language that is simultaneously kind and angry, respectful and vulgar (yep, he uses the “c” word to refer to a teenage girl), and it makes for rich if not occasionally, bumpy, reading. Readers are treated to a roughly chronological-anecdotal accounting of the rise and fall of the most influential brother act in modern country music history.
The Louvin Brothers, born Ira Lonnie Loudermilk (1924) and Charles Elzer Loudermilk (1927), seemed destined to live out the James Agee/Walker Evans fatalistic mythology of dirt-poor, Depression-era, Alabama-Appalachian kids raised by an abusive father and a hymn-singing mother. But Roy Acuff and The Smoky Mountain Boys changed all that when Ira and Charlie, as working boys on the family cotton farm, saw them perform in Henagar, Ala.
Mr. Louvin claims that seeing Roy Acuff’s touring car (an “air-cooled Franklin”) and witnessing Roy Acuff as symbol of the Grand Ole Opry, “triggered our love for country music.” But it was Ira who convinced Charlie to think seriously about music: “There was some of those songs I think we do as well as he does,” Ira said about Acuff’s performance. He added, “There are some we do even better.”
The episodes Mr. Louvin spins of the brothers’ long haul to a decent recording contract and membership in The Grand Ole Opry, while reaching for that “air-cooled Franklin,” are invitational and conversational. Here’s an example from the chapter “Singing School”: “Once Ira and I really set our sights on a music career, I all but gave up on school. I made it through grade school, but the only reason I did is because we used to have this thing every Friday at noon where the teacher would open the sliding partition between the two rooms, and all the students would spend the rest of the day singing songs and playing their instruments. Ira and I loved that.”
Then the tale takes a dark turn when their father gave them money once to attend a local Singing School. Instead, the brothers bought candy and cigarettes and spent the day in the woods. At home that evening, their father “beat the holy shit” out of them. The lesson Mr. Louvin takes from that episode and offers his readers? “Even so, I’m still glad Ira and I did what we did. It might have ruined us [musically] if we’d went to that school.”
Tales like these ruminate throughout the autobiography. Mr. Louvin’s voice is homey, descriptive, gossipy, crude and utterly engaging. The story of the Satan Is Real album cover, alone, is nearly worth the cost of the book. The brothers built and painted the Satan figure, put him in an abandoned rock quarry, stacked and soaked old tires in kerosene, lit them up, dressed up in their white suits, and called the photographer.
Even though the Louvin Brothers experienced many successes, as their vast record catalog attests, ultimately we learn that Ira and Charlie Louvin never seemed to have much money as musicians; their personal lives and destructive choices got in their way; Ira should have been a preacher, but he was mostly drunk his whole life. Yet Mr. Louvin never tries to analyze or judge the outcomes of their lives and careers too deeply. “There’s nothing like singing with your own blood,” he concludes, “even when the circumstances aren’t the best.”
Satan Is Real is a book for those of us who can never get enough of the Louvin Brothers. But all readers enjoy a gripping story. Charlie Louvin has spoken a spellbinding one, here.
Read “Behind the Scenes of ‘Satan Is Real'” an interview with the co-author Ben Whitmer.
Marianne Worthington first heard Emmylou Harris’ “If I Could Only Win Your Love” played on a Knoxville radio station while traveling in a car with her father, circa 1975, who asked, “Who’s singing that old Louvin Brothers song?” With the help of her father, a few good country music encyclopedias and the music of Emmylou Harris, she pieced together a Louvin Brothers history all her own. In the early 1990s she paid a whole lot of money for the 8-CD box set of The Louvin Brothers from Bear Family Records that contained Charles Wolfe’s admirable booklet of liner notes (later published in book form as In Close Harmony: The Story of the Louvin Brothers.) Her life has never been the same.