LOS ANGELES — The records that brothers Ira and Charlie Louvin made in the 1950s and early ‘60s are some of the most revered and influential in the history of country music. The songs, many of them written by the Alabama-born siblings, have been widely recorded by succeeding generations of singers; their distinctive harmonies on songs such as “I Don’t Believe You’ve Met My Baby,” “When I Stop Dreaming,” “If I Could Only Win Your Love,” “Every Time You Leave” and “Don’t Laugh” created a template that strongly affected groups from the Everly Brothers to the Beatles and the Byrds, to the Judds and forward to Lady Antebellum.
“You can’t find anybody, I don’t think, that was not inspired by them,” Vince Gill told the Los Angeles Times when Charlie died last January at age 83. “They were the kingpins of that family harmony.”
But that extraordinary harmony wasn’t often heard offstage, a fact that becomes clear immediately in “Satan Is Real: The Ballad of the Louvin Brothers.” Charlie Louvin’s new autobiography wastes no time dispelling notions that he put together a reverential reminiscence filtered through the rosy mists of time.
In the first chapter, Louvin recounts an incident when he and his older brother had finished a stint of shows and returned to the family home in Sand Mountain, Ala., to visit their parents. Ira nearly fell out of the car, drunk, and proceeded to speak rudely to their mother when she mentioned his chronic drinking.
When he directed profanity toward her, Charlie lit into him. “I beat the (tar) out of him right there in the front yard. He was lucky it was just words, too. If he’d have touched her, I’d still be in prison.”
That’s right in keeping with much of the Louvins’ repertoire, which revolved around grand themes of life, death, religion, salvation, damnation, human choices and, sometimes, joy. The title is taken from one of their best known gospel songs, which also yielded a now-classic album cover, which is re-purposed on the book’s jacket. It shows Charlie and Ira standing in front of a giant cutout of Satan, looking as though they’re singing from the fiery depths of hell.
Louvin was in his early 80s when he sat down with writer Benjamin Whitmer to tell his life story. He’d been experiencing a career resurgence that began in 2003 with the release of an all-star tribute album, “Livin’, Lovin’, Losin’: Songs of the Louvin Brothers,” which won a Grammy Award for best country album.
In 2007, Louvin released the first of a string of latter-day solo recordings in which he and several high-profile guests revisited some of the classic country and gospel material he’d first worked up when he and Ira were regulars on the country music charts and members of the Grand Ole Opry.
As celestially sweet as their voices could be together, the Louvin Brothers were among many family acts that struggled to harmonize offstage because of clashing temperaments: Ira was an alcoholic notorious for his outbursts of drunken rage. Charlie was a teetotaler who often found himself taking the brunt of his brother’s anger and making amends for his brother’s self-destructive actions.
Eventually, it became too much for Charlie and in 1964, he split professionally with Ira and started a solo career. While traveling between solo engagements the following year, Ira was killed near Kansas City, Mo., in a traffic accident when his car was struck by a drunk driver.
Louvin vividly recounts getting the news of his brother’s death that night, of his long friendship with Johnny Cash, of their childhood working on the family cotton farm. He describes how his and Ira’s passion for music offered at least a glimpse of a way out of what otherwise would have been a life filled with the backbreaking manual labor of picking cotton.
“One night, while climbing into bed, bone-tired after another day of picking, (Ira) said to me, ‘We ain’t got no choice, Charlie. You know that.’
“‘No choice about what, Ira?’ I said. I already had the blanket up to my chin and I could hardly keep my eyes open.
“‘No choice about whether or not we make it as singers.’ His voice sounded choked up, and I looked over at him. He was older than me, almost full grown, but he looked like he might just bust out in tears. ‘I can’t do this for the rest of my life.’
“‘I know, Ira,’ I said (and) I knew what he meant. That having a music career didn’t mean the Opry or riding around in a fancy automobile anymore. It meant not picking cotton for the rest of our lives. It meant survival.”
Louvin’s book is filled with more unvarnished recollections of their early years under the brutal hand of a parent who himself had been raised by a physically abusive father. Ira, the elder son, took the worst of the beatings routinely doled out for any transgressions the children might commit, but Charlie also got his share.
Ira’s refuge was the bottle; the experience taught Charlie to abhor alcohol and the side effects he knew too well.
Whitmer, a 39-year-old Denver-based writer and lifelong country music fan, was introduced to Louvin through Whitmer’s agent. He spent several weeks in daily conversation with Louvin, who even as an octogenarian who was going through the final stages of pancreatic cancer was “a real workhorse,” Whitmer says.
“I was lucky enough to grow up with a mother who listened to nothing but bluegrass, folk and traditional country,” Whitmer said last week. “So they were definitely in the air.”
Still, although he knew about Ira and Charlie’s volatile relationship, Whitmer said he learned “a whole bunch of things” in guiding Charlie through his memories. “The main one we talked about was just how much punishment Ira absorbed. It haunted him incredibly that his brother got the brunt of it. Whether or not he could have done anything about it, and he knew he couldn’t have, it still haunted him.”
As the years went by following Ira’s death, Charlie continued touring as well as appearing regularly on the Grand Ole Opry. Over the last decade, younger musicians such as Lucinda Williams, the Old 97’s, Elvis Costello, Jack White and Beck championed him, many of them inviting him to be the opening act for their shows.
“He said the Old 97’s were the sweetest people in the world,” Whitmer said. “He was so appreciative. He said their lead singer (Rhett Miller) would always tell the audience, ‘In a just world, we would be opening for him.’”
Williams, who played many shows with Louvin in recent years, noted the day after he died, “Charlie was eternally youthful, full of spitfire, vim and vigor and, like Hank Williams, was a true punk, in the best sense of the word. We will miss Charlie, but like he said shortly before he left us, “I’m ready to go home.’”