Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Satan Is Real: The Ballad Of The Louvin Brothers


The story of Cain and Abel is more than just a family squabble that snowballed into the world's first murder. It's a narrative that gets at a fundamental question: how can two men raised in the same family turn out so differently? Buried in this question is an even deeper mystery: what makes us who we are?

The Louvin Brothers, Ira and Charlie, were the sons of a dirt-poor cotton farmer in Alabama. They were, in most ways, a contrast. Ira was tall, brown-haired, and snake-oil-salesman charming. His younger brother Charlie was short, blond, and more reserved. Perhaps as important as any of these differences, though, was the revelation that when the two boys sang together they created a harmony that seemed both transcendent and earthy at the same time. After years of toil (and following a change of their given name of Loudermilk to the concocted Louvin), they finally hit it big, creating a body of work in bluegrass, gospel, and country music that has few equals. Their influence--on everyone from Ray Charles and Johnny Cash, to Graham Parsons, Alison Krauss, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings--is still felt today.

The music of the Louvin Brothers is their monument, but the fascination of their story goes deeper. As with Cain and Abel, Ira and Charlie were brothers at odds with each other. Charlie, like many younger siblings, grew up in awe of his domineering older brother, but Ira Louvin was a man beset with demons. The stories of his alcoholic rages are still famous--the way he'd smash mandolins on stage and cuss out audiences, his abuse of friends and family, the four different wives. He tried to choke his third wife to death with a telephone cord on their bed. She stopped him by grabbing a .22 from under his pillow (because, of course, he was the kind of man who slept with a gun under his head) and shot him twice. When he tried to run away, she shot him three more times in the back. Then she walked up to him as he lay on the floor and shot him one more time in the chest.

He lived through that, but in many ways the Louvin Brothers never recovered. Charlie, married with children and needing a steady income, finally severed their business partnership. The two men kept in sparse contact until a few years later when Ira, in an irony out of a Greek tragedy, was killed by a drunk driver.

The story of the Louvin Brothers is told in the new book SATAN IS REAL:THE BALLAD OF THE LOUVIN BROTHERS written by Charlie Louvin (who lived to the ripe old age of 83 and died in 2011) and novelist Benjamin Whitmer. The book takes its place alongside the surprisingly deep bench of fine country singer memoirs (COAL MINER'S DAUGHTER, CASH: THE BIOGRAPHY, I LIVED TO TELL IT ALL). It's funny, sad, never less than fascinating. Its most striking feature is its complete lack of sentiment. You might expect from a memoir of an old man looking back on his hardscrabble youth some tales of family unity. Indeed, when most people think of the Louvins, they probably think of Ira as a bad seed child.

The truth, as always, is more complicated. Charlie Louvin's recounting of his life growing up in poverty should be essential reading for anyone wanting to understand why country music is sad. Poverty takes every problem and multiplies it by a thousand. Louvin's portrait of his father is most telling. "Ira and I watched the way Papa worked," he recalls "and we knew the way he worked all of us kids. And I think we got to thinking he was pretty dumb. He'd made some pretty stupid choices to end up where he was... When we thought of all the things a person could be in their lives, we couldn't think of nothing worse than being a cotton farmer."

In Louvin's eyes, he and his brother were "slaves" to his father. The contempt here is palpable. Enduring backbreaking "forced labor" for no pay was only part of it. Louvin also recounts the casual violence in that poor farmer's shack, as his father took out his rage and frustration on his children, particularity his eldest son. "Papa wasn't always calm when he came after Ira to give him a whipping. And when he wasn't calm, he wouldn't wait to find a width of hickory, he'd beat him with whatever was at hand. A chunk of firewood, a piece of furniture, whatever."

Ira became a man of bottomless insecurity and rage, a depth of pain that probably didn't need the fuel of alcoholism added to the fire. Of course, what makes this a story about more than just poor abused children is the irony that it was their father who first pushed the Louvins toward music. And music rescued them from poverty.

And what glorious music it is. Charlie Louvin's book takes its name from their most famous album, SATAN IS REAL, and lifts its iconic cover art. The album is a masterpiece of tight harmony singing, impeccable musicianship, and shocking theological purity. It's an album suffused with the glory of Christ but terrorized by the evil of Satan. The cover art has camp appeal, of course, like the primitive rural art found in folk museums--self-taught artists obsessively painting pictures of heaven and hell, pictures that are both cartoonish in their stylistic limitation and terrifying in their sadomasochistic vision. (Read Louvin's account of the making of the cover art and you'll see both of these qualities in play.) The music itself, however, is dark. This is an album of drunkards and fallen men, dying mothers and stillborn babies, Christian redemption and Satanic evil. A song like "Satan's Jeweled Crown" interprets life as a pitched battle for the soul of man:

when I live my life so reckless and evil/ drinkin' and runnin' around/ the things I would do were the will of the devil/ I was giving my soul for Satan's jeweled crown

Fundamentalist Protestantism has created a handful of masterpieces, and SATAN IS REAL is one of them, an essential piece of American music. Having said that, however, it would be a mistake to pigeonhole the Louvins as a gospel act. Their other essential masterpiece is the gorgeous 1956 TRAGIC SONGS OF LIFE. The album is, in some ways, the purer piece of work, in that it features Ira Louvin's blistering work on the mandolin (an instrument the brothers had largely worked out of their act by the time they recorded SATAN IS REAL). It's a collection, as the title indicates, about loss and heartache. It features the Louvins' haunting versions of "In The Pines" "Mary of the Wild Moor" and everyone's favorite murder ballad "Knoxville Girl." No gangsta rapper, no death metal shredder has ever managed to top the chilling performance of the brothers as they sing:

We went to take an evening walk
about a mile from town
I picked a stick up off the ground
and knocked that fair girl down

She fell down on her bended knees
for mercy she did cry
"Oh Willie dear
don't kill me here
I'm unprepared to die"

She never spoke another word
I only beat her more
until the ground around me
within her blood did flow

But this is no boast, no simplistic glorying in misogyny and violence. This senseless act of murder opens up--as it always does in the fundamentalist phantasmagoria of the Louvin Brothers--a pit where the fires of hell burn around the killer's bed at night.

TRAGIC SONGS OF LIFE casts a wide net, though, beyond the gruesomeness of murder ballads. A song like "A Tiny Broken Heart" is, at first glance, almost shockingly sentimental. The tale of a little boy upset because the girl next door must move away could easily be too saccharine to stand. What puts the song over is both the specificity of its focus--we stay in the perspective of the child for whom this tragedy is nothing less than the loss of the love of his life--and its wider social context (the girl's family must move away because picking season is over and there's no work to be had). Here the brothers create, with the attention of miniaturist painters, a vision of young love crushed by implacable economic forces.

Despite the pervasive darkness of their vision, the music of the Louvin Brothers is a source of almost unbridled joy. Ira's high tenor folded so perfectly into Charlie's warm melody tenor that the two men seemed to form--at times--one voice. Mix this with the breakneck pace of many of their songs--
driven by Ira's mandolin but kept on the rails by Charlie's steady rhythm guitar--and you get music that manages the almost impossible task of being happy and sad at the same time. This weird quality, as evidenced by Charlie Louvin's vivid memoir, was the result of the mysterious dynamic of the men themselves, two brothers born into hardship and poverty, separated by sin but bound by blood and music.

***
Here's an interview with writer Benjamin Whitmer about helping Charlie Louvin write his memoir.

4 comments:

Naomi Johnson said...

What a great review! The first I've seen that truly captures both book and music.

Jake Hinkson said...

Thanks, Naomi!

BMW said...

Thanks very much, Jake, for the kind and insightful review.

Ben

Jake Hinkson said...

Thanks, Ben. And thanks for writing this wonderful book with Charlie.