The Bloody Ballad of Charlie and Ira Louvin

In the very first chapter of Satan Is Real: The Ballad of the Louvin Brothers, Charlie and Ira Louvin return home after finding their fortune as successful musicians. Ira is drunk and disrepects his mother, and Charlie thrashes him around the yard. It’s profane, bloody, and matter-of-fact. It’s only two pages, but it sets the tone for the entire book and might be the best opening chapter to an autobiography I’ve ever read.

From there, the book goes back to the Louvin Brothers’ beginning, but that first chapter lets you know — if you didn’t know your Louvin Brothers history already — that for all their success, there will also be a darkness to the Louvin Brothers tale.

And what darkness. It’s my belief that in Americana heaven, all of the choirs sing like classic country duos, and the highest order of angels just might sound like the Louvin Brothers. As Kris Kristofferson puts it in his too brief intro to Satan is Real, there’s something about that “blood harmony”, the sound of two siblings singing together, that can’t be beat.

As children, though, Charlie and Ira experienced their share of Hell on Earth. Their father, himself the son of a cruel drunk, turned his violence on his sons. Ira, being the oldest son, received the worst of beatings that used feet, fists, switches, pieces of furniture, logs — anything within reach if their father was angry enough — to put him within spitting distance of death’s door at least once.

It’s hard to believe, given the beatings their father would administer, that the Louvin boys maintained a mischievous and rebellious streak, but the book’s early chapters are filled with tales of antics gone wrong. Those episodes, though, paint their father not only as a man with a savage temper, but also as a man who had use only for usefulness. His anger at a persimmon tree being chopped down? Mainly due to the fact that it was a fruit-bearing tree that the family needed. His response to the mutt puppies that resulted from the boys sneaking a bulldog in to breed with a prized bloodhound? He told Charlie to put them in a sack and brain them against a fence post to kill them.

But their father also loved music, and Charlie and Ira could always sing. So from very humble beginnings (as shy children, they’d sing from beneath a bed when their father demanded they perform for company) to their current status as country music icons, music plays a front-and-center role for the duration of Satan is Real. No matter what else is going on — poverty, marriages, Ira’s growing alcoholism — there’s always the music.

There also seems to be a fair amount of predestination to the Louvins’ story. In much the same way that they sneaked listens to a Roy Acuff show as kids, Charlie recalls finding a young Johnny Cash (way before his career began) trying his best to get a listen to the Louvin Brothers. On a darker note, the alcoholism and self-destructiveness that defines Ira seems inevitable, given his grandfather’s drunkenness, his father’s cruelty, and Ira’s mix of insecurity and rebellion.

As told to Benjamin Whitmer, Satan is Real is Charlie Louvin’s recollection of the whole Louvin Brothers saga. From the early days when they realized their singing was their only ticket out of a life of back-breaking work and abuse, through their struggles to find a record deal, and to the end of the Brother’s partnership when Charlie finally agreed with a drunken Ira that the time had come to break up). The book takes on Charlie’s voice, as if he’s sitting there spinning the whole yarn out in front of you.

He’s at turns matter-of-fact (in a “that’s just the way things were” kind of way), and at other times quite reflective, thinking back on the ways in which their childhood turned them into the men they became. Through his eyes, the youthful rebellion, Ira’s tendency to sabotage the band’s success (Charlie estimates Ira cost them several million dollars by insulting Elvis Presley, who until then had a habit of including Louvin Brothers songs on his albums), Charlie’s happy and successful marriage, Ira’s tempestuous and failed marriages, and Ira’s death all bear equal weight in forming the tapestry that makes up their time together.

However, Satan is Real has a lot of ground to cover (Charlie Louvin was 83 when he died in January 2011), so certain periods, such as Charlie’s time in the Air Force, get little more than a passing mention. It’s a bit of a blur, and a little unfortunate that we don’t learn more about, for example, his later time in Korea when he seemed to be engaged in some Catch 22-type shenanigans selling overpriced liquor to officers.

The focus of the book, though, is on the music, and on the many ways it might never have been made. The Louvins, despite what they became, still had to fight through low-paying jobs, still had to struggle through Ira’s self-destructive tendencies, and still had to learn to write and perform their own songs. It was a long hard road before the Louvin Brothers became THE LOUVIN BROTHERS. Even after they found their fame, there was no time to rest, as Ira’s addiction and behavior made the Louvin Brothers a risky act to book.

It’s interesting that Charlie looks back on so much of his time in the band so fondly, since so much of it sounds like a grinding ordeal. He notes that unlike many sibling bands of the time — the Monroe Brothers, for example, used to go at each other with baseball bats — he and Ira remained friends during their years on the road, despite Ira’s behavior.

Even after Ira’s death in a car crash, after Charlie had broken up the band and gone on to a successful solo career, there’s a tone of reconciliation from Charlie. That seems appropriate for the Charlie Louvin we meet in the book, though. In his stories about dealing with Ira and with others, he seems to exhibit a “go with the flow” non-confrontational personality. From early on in their lives, he admits that Ira could talk him into anything, even if he knew it was wrong. That ranges from youthful pranks to what Charlie admits was the crime of committing Ira’s wife to a mental hospital.

Like much in the book, though Charlie Louvin is honest with himself about those things, just as he’s honest about the trials and tribulations and joys of being a Louvin Brother.