[13 December 2011]
It has been said countless times before that the Beatles’ harmonies were influenced by the Everly Brothers, who in turn molded their voices from that of the Louvin Brothers. If that is the probable case, then a good portion of the history of popular music can be traced back to the rural red clay of south Alabama where brothers Ira and Charlie Louvin were born and raised amongst a family of five other siblings and their God-fearing, soil-tilling parents. Older brother Ira’s heavenly high tenor and Charlie’s perfectly accompanying lower register were honed and perfected after hours and hours of daily practice to the point where, Charlie admitted, they could “phrase together without lookin’ at each other, without steppin’ on each other’s toes, or winking at each other.” Graceful and authentic, harmonious and beautiful, the brothers’ voices intertwined with a passionate connection that was capable of tearing the roofs off of not only the Louvin family home, but barns, honkytonks, and Baptist churches just the same. That’s an important distinction to make, because while Ira and Charlie’s voices were embellished with repetition and seasoning, their sound blended together so seamlessly that it could only be viewed as a gift from God, an expected connection in the world in which the brothers grew up and matriculated.
Naturally, the Louvin Brothers gravitated to gospel music, and it wasn’t long before they were barnstorming the country and attracting the attention of labels and producers. However, there was always a bit of a dark undercurrent in both their selection of material and in their writing habits. God was worshipped and glorified, but lurking below was an element of sadness, anger, and despair. What was at the cause of these maladies? Why, Satan of course. Like any good Baptist, Ira and Charlie acknowledged the temptations of evil and noticed its presence in their surroundings. While Charlie played the roles of dutiful brother, son, and manager in his life, as well as in the functioning of the band, Ira struggled in keeping up his end. A violent temper, a penchant for hard booze, and a temperamental chaotic streak plagued his soul, leading to four marriages, a tempestuous relationship with friends and family, and a spotty track record with the music promoters the brothers depended upon for their livelihood. Before going their separate ways in late 1963, the Louvin Brothers recorded and released approximately 12 albums of gospel and secular music. They are gloriously exciting recordings, amazing for both their musical talents and for the profundity of their message. In the span of a few lines they could proselytize the saving powers of the Holy Spirit, but also warn of the harming enticements around each and every corner, where Satan lurked, eager and willing to take in those who strayed from the righteous path of goodwill.
In their catalog, though, no album stands out more than Satan Is Real, their 1959 masterpiece that outlines and encapsulates the fragile fine lines of good versus evil, and spirituality versus the mundane. After nearly 50 years, Satan Is Real is almost as famous for its cover as it is for the music contained within. Featuring a giant, caricatured red Satan, smiling, cross-eyed and eerily aiming his pitchfork right at Ira while standing atop a smoldering pile of rocks, the cover photograph makes no pretense about the aim of its message. Almost humorously, Ira and Charlie stand in front of the Devil, gleefully raising their arms and singing in praise while dressed in their religiously white suits as if in the hope that their joyous sounds and posture will ward off the Evil present in their midst. Staring at the cover throughout the playback of the album will also serve as a sufficient visual accompaniment as the brothers fight, pick, and claw their way to salvation.
From the beginning strums of the title track, the battle lines are set as Ira matter-of-factly acknowledges the existence of Satan. If God and the bliss of Heaven exist, well then certainly Satan and the spitfires of Hell do too, a fact that Ira testifies to both in song and in an extended spoken-word testimonial that anchors the opening track. The album continues in this vein, as spiritual fortitude and perseverance in the faces of evil is stressed. “When burdens seem to overcome, there’s a higher power”, they sing in the aptly titled “There’s a Higher Power”. “I won’t lose a friend by heeding God’s call / For what is a friend who’d want you to fall,” the brothers testify in “The Christian Life”, a song made famous a decade later by Gram Parsons and the Byrds. The narrators’ various states of fragility are stunningly captured by the brothers’ harmonies on Carter Family gem, “The Kneeling Drunkard’s Plea” where mercy from God is almost begged for by those in dire straits. While that song veers more towards the maudlin, a similar sentiment is etched in a more upbeat, yet still serious manner in “The Drunkard’s Doom”, where the narrator’s urges to drink lead to a swift and brutal downfall before things are tempered by a conscious conversion to the Christian ways.
Throughout the album, The Louvin Brothers never shy away from the tough questions, dualities, and decisions people face. Obviously, they believe the answer lies in turning one’s life over to Christ, and fire and brimstone await those who sway and teeter. Just as obvious, though, are the facts. Ira struggled to find the proper balance and his alcohol and rage-filled end was met, ironically in a head-on collision with a drunk driver who killed not only him, but his new wife and four others as well. Perhaps because of Ira’s struggles and Charlie’s devotion towards him, the duo never sound preachy or above reproach in their views. Their messages are earnest and passionate, but stand the test of time because of their genuineness and honesty. They were far from perfect themselves, and although they strove to live by Christian virtue, they wrestled with the demons of Satan just like everyone else. That struggle was an essential part of their life and their legacy as a band.
Speaking of legacies, the Louvin Brothers have been revered and covered by countless artists over the past half-century. Included in this reissue of Satan Is Real is a disc of Louvin Brothers tunes hand-picked by a bevy of performers, ranging from legendary country artists like Kris Kristofferson, Chris Hillman, and Dolly Parton to modern interpreters like Beck, Jim James, Zooey Deschanel, and Devandra Banhart. Curious listeners can learn a great deal from listening and studying to these selections, and some highlights include Beck’s selection of “The Great Atomic Power” (which some may recognize from Uncle Tupelo’s spirited cover), Will Oldham’s pick of the brothers’ homage to their native land in “Alabama”, and Hillman’s nod towards the lighter side of the Louvin Brothers in “Don’t Laugh”, which also illustrates the fierce picking skills they possessed. It is a good reminder that besides the seriousness of the subject matter, the Louvin Brothers were also a helluva pair of musicians.