Ass-Kickin' Old Saint Nick
If gospel bluegrass can fathom its own Velvet Underground, then here they are: Ira and Charlie Louvin, a.k.a. The Louvin Brothers. Their comprehension of the tortured throes of a drunkard’s Satan-infested soul are no less profound than Lou Reed’s own understanding of a heroin junkie wrestling with a world devoid of meaning beyond the piercing tip of the needle. (Ironically enough, the title track to this album was featured in the soundtrack to the film Jesus’ Son, the title of which was taken from a Velvet Underground song.) Yet the comparison cuts a bit deeper. It is the ability to musically express this understanding that is the sign of true artistry. The brothers Louvin and the Velvet Underground share a bare-bones approach to songwriting where relatively simple chords are combined with a brutally honest lyrical approach. It is the guitar in “Waiting For My Man” which allows the listener to share in the urgency of the junkie who knows “you always gotta wait”. And so it is with the melody in the Louvin’s “River of Jordan” that we feel the “cool waters that quench [our] souls”.
Ira Louvin’s own struggles with the bottle and fiery death in a car accident allow him the same inherent knowledge of one in league with one’s own personal devil that Lou Reed surely gained in his experiences with heroin. The brothers speak with the authority and assurance of those who have felt the hand of God and are left with no real choice but to preach it to the masses. “It’s sweet to know that God is real . . . but, sinner friend, Satan is real too, and hell is a real place”. Harsh words, but the Louvins are the salt in the wounds of the faithless and they merely sing it the way they see it. Ultimately, the choice to stay adrift in the cold with the kneeling drunkard, or to come into the country church, where the harsh outside is reduced to a cool breeze blowing through an open window, is left to the listener.
Yet the departure from the Velvet Underground, of course, is profound as well. The existentialism of those adrift in Lou Reed’s seedy societal underbelly is perhaps their only redemption. The Louvins people their music with similar troubled characters: the kneeling drunkard, the father who gambles. But for the Louvins, there are concrete solutions. The soul can be washed in Jordan’s river of its sins and offered for grace from the Higher Power. The song “Higher Power” has an infectious flow to it reminiscent of an old time revival meeting. It is perhaps one of white America’s finer plunges into the depths of the musical spirituality that has been rooted in the African-American church since the dawning of its history in slavery times.
The modern listener is perhaps skeptical to listen to an album so rooted in its faith. Perhaps the burning plywood cut-out of a buck-toothed devil that graces the cover is a deterrent to a mind so rooted in rational estimations of worth. But that is a symptom of the close-mindedness that is a part of our contemporary, more urban world. The depth is there in Satan is Real. This album transcends the immediate kitsch appeal of its cover. There is a reason why songs from this album have been performed by the more commonly accepted genius of artists such as Gram Parsons, Johnny Cash, and Emmylou Harris.
Lacking John Milton’s human sympathy towards Satan, the Louvins trace all of the evils in the world to his door. They even enlist support in their musical ass-kicking of old Saint Nick with their cover of the Carter Family’s “The Kneeling Drunkard’s Plea”.
The Louvins have no fear plunging into the metaphysical undercurrents that control the sensible world. “Are you afraid? Are you unsaved? Are you afraid to die?” they cry as they set out on the long road to personal salvation, unwilling to wait for skeptics. The music they have left us with, though simple in its banjo and guitar construction, is powerful enough to conjure the flaming tongues of hell that will lick those who fall by the wayside.