Satan Is Real: The Ballad of the Louvin Brothers by Charlie Louvin (Igniter Press, 320 pp, $22.99).
"There was something scary and washed in the blood about the sound of the Louvin Brothers," says singer Emmylou Harris. She should know, having dedicated part of her career to keeping the musical legacy of Ira and Charlie Louvin alive. The Louvin Brothers, from north Alabama, were arguably the greatest duo, and inarguably the most influential one, in country music history. Haunting close harmonies marked the Louvins' songs of love, religion, and the occasional murder ballad, while classics like "Cash On the Barrelhead," "You're Running Wild" and "When I Stop Dreaming" made them a critical part of country music's classic 1950s era.
Charlie, the younger brother, died last year, but not before telling a slew of stories that are now collected in this fascinating autobiography. The book is titled after a famous Louvin Brothers gospel album, and although that album's cover is now considered a kitsch classic, Louvin's stories are anything but kitschy. The pictures Charlie word-paints of the era's music business and the brothers' twisting road to fame and eventual breakup create a clear view of a key time in the South's cultural history.
The book details Charlie and Ira's upbringing as sons of a cotton farmer/music fan whose influence on his eldest son, Ira, would be immense, in both good and terrible ways. Once, the two brothers "snuck off" to listen outside an auditorium where Roy Acuff was playing. After the Louvins became known, Charlie met an overall-wearing boy in Arkansas who was "sneaking a listen" to one of their shows; it was 15-year-old Johnny Cash.
The stories continue: the small-town radio shows; the fast-talking hustlers who helped the Louvins' career while helping themselves to much of their money; a stint in the Air Force during the Korean War; auditioning time and again for the Grand Ole Opry till they finally made it; cheaply assembled package tours that exhausted the artists but finally allowed them to "make a good living."
Most intriguing, however, is the book's firsthand, riveting look at the tormented life of Ira Louvin, the brother whom Charlie would call "three-fifths of the Louvin Brothers," and was apparently responsible for much of the brothers' original work.
Some Southern musicians have famously whip-sawed back and forth between religion and the music business (see Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard), but few were as agonizingly torn as Ira Louvin, whose guilt over "turning my back on God" eventually exhausted and ruined him.
Ira was a creative, mischievous kid, and was prone to dreaminess all his life (reflected in the numerous references to dreams in the Louvins' songs). Very few people, however, have survived emotionally, much less held on to their creativity, after living through the kind of childhood Ira had. His father worked his boys like slaves on his cotton farm and would beat them at the drop of a hat. He particularly enjoyed abusing Ira, at times beating his eldest son unconscious. Ira and his talent survived, but his brutal upbringing left him a deeply angry, violent man whose acquaintances most often described him as "a rattlesnake" — a rattler with a serious drinking problem.
As the Louvin Brothers' career grew, Ira drank even more. He argued with audience members from the stage; he told Elvis Presley to his face that he was "nothing but a white n----r"; he regularly smashed his mandolin to bits in the middle of performances if he couldn't tune it quickly. To compound his misery, as Charlie describes it, "Ira saw others drinking and having fun, but he couldn't do it because drinking just made him meaner."
Finally, Charlie couldn't take Ira's anger and boozing anymore, and he quit the group in 1963. Ira was soon in the hospital after being shot six times by his wife, whom he had tried to choke with a telephone cord. He died in 1965 in a car crash, killed, ironically, by a drunk driver.
In the late 1960s/early 1970s, Gram Parsons, the South Carolina musician who today is credited with starting country rock, introduced hipsters to the Louvins. Today, the Louvins are deservedly celebrated as the great artists they were. Charlie's autobiography should go a long way toward keeping respect alive for country's most compelling duo.
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