Thursday, August 30, 2012

Satan is Real: The Story of the Louvin Brothers

You will, if you are of a certain age and inclination, recall the conflicting sides of Donald Duck’s personality. They were represented by an angel and a devil. Each one gave him advice and encouragement and left him the free will to choose. This dichotomy has been displayed in literature, film, and parenting since time began. The Louvin Brothers (Charlie and Ira Loudermilk) were a pair of brothers who sang deep country music. Ira was the dark-haired handsome one who played the mandolin and sang the high tenor part. He was a womanizer, a drunkard, and had a bad temper. He was a scallywag with a beautiful voice. Charlie was the good boy – he didn’t drink, was married to one woman for decades, he played guitar and sang the low harmonies. The Louvin Brothers began their career in the 1940s. They called themselves the Louvins because people mispronounced Loudermilk. As the Loudermilk brothers they learned their harmonies from their mother who taught them old folk songs as they did their chores around the house, and from the sacred harp singing at the local church. The influence they had on country music is immeasurable. Satan Is Real was the name of their most iconic record album; it is also the title of Charlie Louvin’s autobiography.

The book was completed shortly before Charlie died from pancreatic cancer in 2011. Benjamin Whitmer helped with the writing. He describes his input: “It’s an autobiography, for sure. Charlie’s story as told to me. I’m the “with” guy, but it’s his book…I was just lucky enough to hitch a ride…The first time I talked to Charlie was on the phone almost immediately after discussions began. I don’t know what I expected, but nothing as comfortable as it turned out to be. We just shot the shit for an hour or so, feeling each other out. He told some stories about Nashville and talked about his life. I was pretty nervous when I called, to be honest, but by the time I hung up he’d thoroughly set me at ease.” That’s what it sounds like. You hear the authentic voice of Charlie Louvin on every page. You can almost hear the changes in his voice as he gets more excited, or more upset with the story he’s telling.

The book is written in short chronological chapters, beginning with life on the family farm and the high expectations their father had for his children. One day, he took the two brothers and their sister to the cotton field. He held up a $5 bill, offering it to whichever sibling could harvest the most cotton. Five dollars was untold wealth at the time, so the kids worked their tails off. Charlie won. The next day, Colonel Loudermilk (his name, not his rank!) said, “Now I know how much cotton you can pick…get in there and pick.” There was no reward this time! That’s the way their father was. When the Louvin boys returned home from the road, though, the proud papa would call all his friends to the house for a free concert.

Charlie tells about seeing Roy Acuff’s car drive by the farm one day, and how the sight of that big air-cooled Franklin acted as motivation for the brothers’ own career. He remembers the night Acuff let the two boys sit in the back row of a concert when it was obvious they had no cash. He remembers doing the same thing for a young man in overalls who couldn’t afford to attend a Louvin show. The young man was Johnny Cash, who would in later years help Charlie out of a financial jam. Charlie talks about the Nudie suits that were the mark of success in country music, he tells tales of Elvis Presley and Col. Tom Parker. My favourite is when Parker created his own job by applying for the post of dog-catcher in Temple Terrace, Florida. The folks at city hall told him they had no such position, and didn’t need one since there wasn’t a dog problem in town. Parker went out and got himself a pack of dogs, released them in the streets then picked them up after the complaints started. He got the job.

Ira and Charlie Louvin, circa 1958. Photo: Michael Ochs

Much of the book tells the story of two brothers who complemented each other and yet found it hard to co-exist. Ira’s drinking would cause himto lose his temper on stage, he would swear at the audience; if his mandolin slipped out of tune he might smash it against the wall. Many times Charlie finished concerts solo. They were still brothers though. When Ira had troubles Charlie was there for him. When Ira’s fourth wife shot him six times, Charlie was on the scene. Ira survived, but he carried two bullets in his back for the rest of his life. When Ira was arrested, Charlie rushed to provide bail. After the duo split and Charlie decided to go solo, he reunited with his brother a couple of times in order to help Ira financially. For many years, in fact, he kept a bottle of whiskey under the sink for late night visits from Ira and his wife. When the visits became too much, Charlie finally agreed to let his wife Betty dump the bottle and never replace it. The late night visits stopped!

Ira was killed in a head-on collision with a drunk driver on a Missouri highway in 1965.

Charlie Louvin
Charlie Louvin’s career continued for nearly 40 years after the death of his brother. In the last few years of his life, he experienced a major comeback: he recorded two studio albums, two live albums and a gospel CD for Tompkins Square Records. For the first album, he was joined by George Jones, Jeff Tweedy and Elvis Costello, among others. Satan Is Real pays short shrift to those years. This is a book about the Louvin Brothers, their career, and their influence. The stories are honest and raw. Perhaps the best is the one about the Satan Is Real photograph. The plywood used to create the cut-out of Satan was the basis of Charlie’s son’s train set. They removed the tracks and cut it out. They stood the 12-foot-tall devil up at a local rock quarry, poured kerosene on old tires hidden in the rocks, set them on fire and stood in the flames. It was Ira’s idea and the photographer wanted no part of it, but the Louvins convinced him to snap a few shots. It remains an iconic image. Original copies of the album sell for $600 on eBay.

Satan Is Real is an engrossing read. The history of country music is bound up in these pages. From the old hand-me-down songs learned at mother’s knee to the sibling harmonies, from the road warriors spending nights driving a thousand miles to the next town to the pills needed to keep you awake at the wheel. It’s all here, told in Charlie Louvin’s authentic voice. It’s one heck of a story.   

– David Kidney has reviewed for Green Man Review and Sleeping Hedgehog. He published the Rylander Quarterly (a Ry Cooder-based newsletter) for 8 years before turning it into a blog, at He works at McMaster University as Director of Learning Space Development and lives in Dundas with his wife.

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