Saturday, April 21, 2012

Charlie Louvin: Still Rattlin' The Devil's Cage

Outside of maybe Danzig, I can't think of a singer more obsessed with Satan than Charlie Louvin. Of course, for Louvin the obsession had more to do with looking down the barrel at all the evil this world can throw at us. As one half of arguably the most influential duo in country music--maybe in all of American music--Charlie Louvin became famous singing gospel music with his brother Ira. Despite temperamental differences as stark as Cain and Abel, the Louvins had otherworldly harmonies. Their talent set them apart, of course, but so did their content. Their most famous album was the classic SATAN IS REAL. Throughout their career, the brothers sang dire warnings about the workings of the devil: "Satan Lied To Me" "Satan And the Saint" "If We Forget God" "Satan's Jeweled Crown". The music was steeped in a Baptist theology were evil had a name and a purpose. Satan, the brothers cautioned, was always looking to destroy the people of God. Ira, alcoholic and consumed with self-hatred and an almost sociopathic rage, seemed to be a poster boy for the damage the devil could inflict. Charlie, steady and calm, devoted to his god and his family, took heed of what had become of his brother. 

After Ira's untimely death in a car accident, Charlie pressed on, haunted by the memory of his tortured older brother. Though he amassed an impressive solo career, charting country hits like "I Don't Love You Anymore" he remained most associated with the music of the Louvin Brothers. It was a double-edged sword. On one hand, it must have been nice to be heralded as a genius, but on the other, he remained tied to the legacy. To make matters worse, Ira was the sexier half of the duo--a conflicted, wildly talented artist who overshadowed his dependable professional of a brother.

If Charlie never really got his due over the years, in the year since his death in 2011, he seems more popular than ever. His biography SATAN IS REAL: THE BALLAD OF THE LOUVIN BROTHERS was released to great acclaim. It's a magnificent book, starkly written and beautifully captures the voice of a born storyteller.

And now a new documentary is out called CHARLIE LOUVIN: STILL RATTLIN' THE DEVIL'S CAGE. Made with Louvin's help just before his death, the film is a wonderful tribute to the singer. It has interviews with longtime admirers such as George Jones, Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss, Marty Stuart, and John McCrea, and it contains Louvin's last performance, a gig in front of an enthusiastic crowd at FooBar in Nashville in 2010. Best of all, it has interviews with the man himself. Louvin's soft spoken grace and country bluntness is almost hypnotic. What a singer, what a legend. What a man.

Check out the documentary, all the proceeds of which go to Louvin's wife, Betty.


Anonymous said...

Have you read the novel Pike by Benjamin Whitmer, Louvin's co-writer on Satan is Read? It's tremendous.

Jake Hinkson said...

You know, I haven't, but it's on the list. Heard many good things about it. Your endorsement pushes it up the list.

JL.TAGLICH said...

Solid essay on a quality musician. And I am also intrigued by this novel, Pike.