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Satan Is Real: The Ballad of the Louvin Brothers

“Roy Acuff had triggered our love for country music. He was, of all things, true to his music. But, still, maybe we could do some of them a little better.”

Even at sixteen and thirteen-years old, respectively, the Louvin Brothers knew they could do them. From Sacred Harp renditions of “Mary of the Wild Moor,” bleeding cotton pickers’ hands, their papa’s beatings and their mama’s sweet potato cobbler, Charlie and Ira Loudermilk became one of the most revered harmony duos in gospel country—the Louvin Brothers. Satan Is Real, written by Charlie with Benjamin Whitmer, chronicles a boozy, boisterous ascent from Southern Appalachia — Sand Mountain, Alabama — to Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry.

With the elder Ira on the mandolin, Charlie on the guitar, and no formal training (they opted for candy and cigarettes with the money their father set aside for Fa So Da Ti Do), the Loudermilk boys became the Louvin Brothers, a gospel duo known for their baffling knack for switching harmonies in the middle of a song—“We could change in the middle of a word… what we could do 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.” Never having learned to read music, the brothers would go on to build their extensive discography with ears perked for melodies and a wire recorder at the ready. (Hank Williams also employed this method.)

The biography is written in an idiom-laden Dixie lingo (personal favorites: “like a fly in the buttermilk” and “fourteen-carat asshole”)—blunt and unapologetic, Charlie takes readers from a Depression-era sharecropper’s life through the triumphs and troughs of a touring life with a boozing, mandolin-breaking Ira.

The bulk of the book is swashed in cameos from country legends like Smilin’ Eddie Hill, George Jones, Little Jimmy Dickens, Johnny Cash, and Kris Kristofferson (who wrote the introduction to the book)—all of whom have covered Louvin Brothers’ tracks. Their songs continue to be covered by contemporary bluegrass musicians—mandolinist Chris Thile (The Punch Brothers) and guitarist Michael Daves do a stellar rendition of “She’s Running Wild.”

In 1956, at the height of their popularity, the Louvins toured with a pre-phenomenon Presley. Charlie writes that “Elvis was a true honest-to-God Louvin Brothers fan, and so was his mother.” Of course, the Louvin’s success as a country gospel duo teetered with Presley’s brand of rock n’ roll and then tottered when a drunk Ira made a racist jab at the King of Rock. Colonel Parker subsequently halted all plans for Elvis to record Louvin songs.

The packaging of the book mirrors the Satan Is Real (Capitol 1959) album cover—the sixteen-foot plywood Satan was Ira’s DIY project, set in a rock quarry near Charlie’s home. The Louvins set tires on fire, buttoned their white Nudie suits and clicked and captured the religious fervor (and fear) of evangelical America. (Today, an original Satan is Real vinyl runs about $500.)

The lures of the unheavenly and the wrath of the omniscient are leitmotifs threaded through the Louvins’ most famous songs—the notion of a doomsday overwhelms much of their discography and becomes startling when you connect it to the brothers’ upbringing at the hands of their unforgiving, vengeful father. Or as Charlie succinctly describes, “When you were dealing with Papa, you were dealing with something inevitable.”

In 1963, two years after Ira was “washed away in whiskey” and the Louvin Brothers formally broke up, a drunk driver killed the elder Louvin and his fourth wife in a head-on collision. In a final twist, the only unscathed item was Ira’s mandolin.

—Ena Brdjanovic

Filed under grand ole opry hank williams johnny cash louvin brothers satan is real lit

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