SATAN IS REAL: THE BALLAD OF THE LOUVIN BROTHERS—BY CHARLIE LOUVIN WITH BENJAMIN WHITMER—ItBooks/HarperCollins Publishers, $22.99. (HarperCollins Publishers, 10 E. 53rd St., New York, NY 10022, www.harpercollins.com.)
If there was ever a pivotal duet in classic country and bluegrass history, it was the Louvin Brothers. You just can’t get any more beloved than the Louvins or down to earth in their musical mastery and sorrowful spiritually.
Charlie and Ira Louvin learned traditional ballads directly at their mother’s knee. They honed their incredible vocals in church with “Sacred Harp” hymnal singing. And they were profoundly influenced by the greatest early country music brother acts: the Monroe Brothers (Charlie and Bill, the latter becoming the Father of Bluegrass and a dear friend who sang at Ira’s funeral); the Blue Sky Boys (Earl and Bill Bolick); and the Delmore Brothers (Alton and Rabon). In turn, the Louvins influenced country and popular music stars as diverse as Jim & Jesse, the Everly Brothers, the Byrds, Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris. Their hit compositions, including “When I Stop Dreaming,” “Cash On The Barrelhead,” and “If I Could Only Win Your Love,” have become bluegrass and country music standards.
Charlie and Ira Louvin lived the dream. Music helped them escape a hardscrabble farming life and won them coveted membership on the Grand Ole Opry. Charlie, who died shortly after collaborating on this powerful new autobiography with co-writer Benjamin Whitmer, testifies that the road through fame was as tough as chopping endless rows of cotton. He pulls no punches in retelling his childhood, his tumultuous relationship with his gifted but tormented older brother Ira, or the triumphs and betrayals of their years in the music business. (Be forewarned: Charlie’s language in this book is equally uncensored.)
Charlie gives constant praise to his brother, who was a multi-faceted genius as a country music songwriter, tenor singer, and mandolinist. I wished for more first-person specifics about Ira’s contribution to such lyrical masterworks as “When I Stop Dreaming,” but to Charlie’s credit, he strives to understand Ira’s tragic struggles with anger and alcohol. (After the Louvin Brothers broke up in 1963, Charlie reinvented himself as a solo Opry star. Ironically, Ira was sober the night of his fatal 1965 car wreck while the driver of the other vehicle was drunk.)
The book’s title and jacket artwork were inspired by the Louvin Brothers’ classic LP Satan Is Real, perhaps the first true “concept album” in country music history. Charlie’s amusing story of how the Louvins themselves created that record’s unforgettable cover photo is a highlight of this volume.
Less amusing is the fact that even at the height of their fame, the Louvins (who were inducted into the Country Music Hall Of Fame in 2001) often struggled to survive financially. But if Satan was real in their show business and personal lives, they were ultimately very real as human beings. It was a thankful victory, as witness Charlie Louvin’s wonderful final retelling.RDS