Musician Charlie Louvin
April 3, 2012 § Leave a comment
There are few album covers as strange and eerily foreboding as the one Charlie and Ira Louvin created for Satan Is Real, and few album’s boasting tracks as enduring. Satan Is Real was created at the height of the duo’s career, when hopes were high and demons were in submission. Yet there seems to be a premonition of things to come in the album’s artwork and songwriting, a secret dread of dark days up ahead, a plaintive sincerity that belies a soul wanting badly to be saved.
The Louvin Brothers were a product of a place and time that allowed for high emotion and passionate spiritual devotion. It was a naïve and raw America, the deep South Alabama they called home still dictated by the slow beat of farm life, the up at dawn, hands in the dirt labor their daddy did each day.
The Louvins were two sons amid seven children, raised on rich land where their family tilled the soil, growing, as Charlie remembers, “cane, cotton, watermelons. Anything that would sell – you grew it.”
Music was as much a fabric of the day-to-day as canning beans or baking bread, their Mama singing praise to the Lord in a sweet, smooth voice that she passed along to her children.
“They could all sing, but the girls screwed up and got married when they was 13 or 14. By the time they got 18 or 19, and really knew what they wanted to do in life, they had three or four children. You don’t run off and leave a house full of children, for somebody else to care for.”
Charlie and Ira, however, kept the rings off their fingers long enough to keep on singing, right through adolescence and on into a burgeoning career on the gospel circuit.
“We would crawl under Mama’s and Papa’s bed, which was about 16″ off the floor,” Charlie reminisced in an interview for Raised Country magazine in 2009, “We’d put our hind ends together and we would sing a song. That’s how we learned to phrase together without lookin’ at each other, without steppin’ on each other’s toes, or winking at each other. It just come natural.”
“If the song was gonna get too high for me to sing the lead on, at that instant Ira would take the high lead, and I would come under him with low harmony. We learned it that way, and it that kinda mystified other duets who were tryin’ to figure out who was doin’ the tenor and who was who was doin’ the lead.”
The two brothers could sing with a deep gut belief in whatever words happened to be spilling from their mouths. And their voices together, Charlie’s rich lower notes under Ira’s heaven-sent, high 5th tenor, were like a miracle – enough proof of God to make a nonbeliever raise their arms up high. The boys had been born Baptist, their family dug in to the Church just about as deep as you could get.
“Salvation was as important as the food you eat or the clothes you wear or the shelter on your house. It was that important. It didn’t make any difference what we did on Saturday night. You didn’t have to ask, ‘Are we going to church tomorrow?’ You knew you were. And our folks never sent us to church. They carried us.”
Sweltering summer and bone cold winter, Ira and Charlie were wrapped up in the Word, blanketed by religion from the cradle on out. Their subsequent affinity for the high and the Holy would help get the Brothers signed to Decca in the early 1940s and make them a popular touring act, but it would be their move to secular music that would finally make the Louvin Brothers stars.
“We wanted to do Secular music. Don’t forsake the Gospel; we’d still cut it also. We got a lot of resistance from the label, ‘cause they knew how much money they could take to the bank on the Gospel stuff. And they were afraid that we would offend the Gospel fan. But we had to take that chance, because we were working in too narrow of a place, and we were willing to take the gamble.”
It was a gamble that paid off, but not without a price. Their first stab at the secular, “The Get Acquainted Waltz”, was recorded with Chet Atkins and earned the Brothers a minor hit. The Louvins were drawing inspiration from country and bluegrass acts like the Delmore and Monroe Brothers and The Blue Sky Boys, but there was something uniquely effective about not only Ira’s elegant mandolin playing, but also the Brothers’ interlaced, soulful and soaring harmonies.
Eventually, other, bigger, hits followed, “Cash on the Barrelhead”, “When I Stop Dreaming”. Ira would write lyrics at a lightening pace, (“as quick as you’d write a note to your wife to buy milk”, Charlie once said) while his younger brother kept things steady with simple guitar melodies and underlying harmony. By 1955, the brothers had earned a place in the Grand Ole Opry, winning legions of new fans with each show.
Back home, their family stood proud.
“They were thrilled as we were with it. My father would go in a cafe where The Louvin Brothers was on the jukebox, and he would go play it. And he’d tell the cashier, ‘Those are my boys’.”
When they weren’t in Nashville, the boys were touring in the manner of the era, nonstop and full throttle, sometimes nearly 356 days a year, back and forth, back and forth, across wide and open roads. There was a thrill in fame of course, in hearing your voice crackle on the radio – but in the end, selling music on the road was nearly the same as selling shoes, requiring the same grueling traveling salesman schedule and lack of domestic luxuries.
And it was on the road where the first jagged cracks began to show, a shadow brewing beneath Ira Louvin’s smooth as silk exterior.
By August of 1958, the Louvins were running full throttle. They were riding high on numerous hit songs and had just settled with produced Ken Nelson to record a series of aching, tormented numbers, hellfire and brimstone forewarnings that were to become Satan Is Real.
Ira was the older of the brothers, as well as the taller, nearly full 12 inches between his six feet and Charlie’s five. He was slick, he was charming and by the time the two recorded, Satan is Real, fully sure of his talents as a mandolin player and songwriter and of his unchallenged title as one of the greatest tenor singers in the history of country music.
Ira was, by all accounts, kind, funny and filled with love for his little brother, but when he took to drink, something in him turned black. Whiskey, beer – it didn’t much matter the poison – pour some in and Ira turned to the devil – full of spit and ire, prone to violent outbursts and a totally unreliable onstage presence.
Recording session for the Louvins were anything but relaxed affairs. They moved at lightening pace, laying down song after song in marathon studio runs. Satan Is Real was recorded in a mere three days, a furious pace that would add to the dark, chaotic river of emotion flowing just under the boys’ angelic melodies. The album was a mix of covers and originals, made a cohesive whole by Louvin’s uniquely plaintive vocal style and more than a hint of religious fervor.
There was Hazel Housers’ “The River Jordan”, the traditional hyme “Dying from Home and Lost”, and the Carter Family’s “Kneeling Drunkard’s Plea”. Then there were the tracks the Louvins wrote themselves, among them the classic, “Christian Life”, later championed by Gram Parsons, Chris Hillman and The Byrds, to the soaring elation of “The Angels Rejoiced Last Night” and “There’s a Higher Power”, to the dire foreboding of “Are You Afraid to Die?”.
Ira himself had penned the album’s title track and it pretty much summed up the question then burning in his guts – if God was real, didn’t that mean Satan had to be real too?
“Satan is real,” he sang, “ Working with power / He can tempt you and lead you astray.”
Ira’s words chilled to the bone, pushing a sore spot on his own soul, on a truth about himself that he wasn’t quite ready to admit.
The album’s artwork, it’s surreal details dreamed up by Ira, featured an enormous, blood red, crossed eyed, bucktoothed Devil, the Brothers beneath, both clad in virgin white. The wooden Satan stands astride a flaming pyre, the end of his pitchfork pointing directly at the top of Ira’s bare head, as if to point out exactly whom the Devil would be choosing.
“We were poor folks back then,” remembers Charlie, of the album’s photo shoot, “my son had a Lionel train on a 4×8 sheet of 3/4″ plywood. So we removed his train, and split the 4×8 right up the middle. It made the devil 16 feet tall. My brother made horns for him, and a pitchfork. And that’s kind of the way that we were raised to think that the ‘booga’ man looked like.”
“it was in an old rock quarry, was where we set the setting up. Had car tires, and they were full of kerosene, coal oil we called it then. And so when we actually got ready, we lit the fires, and when the fires were high, it just started to sprinkle rain. And Capitol Records had sent a photographer all the way from California to do this photo, he said, ‘Boys it’s raining, we’re gonna have to put this off.’. I said, ‘If we can stand out here in these white suits, surely it’s not gonna hurt your camera. So it’s either now or never.’ So he went ahead and took the pictures.”
The resulting image has haunted record hounds around the world for decades, the potent weirdness of the Louvins, smiling gleefully, arms spread in welcome – and the leering, myopic, plywood Satan, threatening to strike Ira down – is now a nearly mythic image in album cover lore.
But it wasn’t just the cover that was unforgettable. The music within would be the Louvins at their most raw – a document of glorious, cathartic and committed revelations – for both the listener and the Louvin’s themselves. In the end Satan is Real was both a struggle with, and glorification of, their God.
When it was finally released by Capitol, in November of 1959, the album would be met with wide acclaim. The Louvins would continue to ride high, at least musically, for the next few years. But the demon was hot on Ira’s trail. His drinking, carousing and bad temper would result in numerous fisticuffs, cancelled gigs, smashed mandolins… and three failed marriages. During a particularly nasty domestic spat, Ira’s the third wife shot him – but didn’t succeed in killing him.
The chaos was quickly dismantling the world around Ira and by association, Charlie’s world as well.
Then there was Elvis, his hip swing sexuality thrusting rocknroll to the forefront. The girls swooned, the boys strutted and suddenly the Louvin Brothers’ sweet, spiritual harmonies seemed out of step with the times.
“We were doing quite well. Then Elvis came along. That hurt country music a lot – it changed all music. And it made my brother drink more.”
Finally Charlie had enough.
“In ’63, it got … I just didn’t know how to deal with a drinker, and still don’t today.
If someone came to the Louvin Brothers and said, “When you go to this particular date, you’d better do a good one, because so-and-so is going to be there, and this booker’s going to be there,” … just as sure as they said that, Ira would drink, and it would turn out to be the worst show we’d ever done.”
“Then the news got around. First thing ya know, one promoter would tell another promoter, “If you want to BUY problems, get the Louvin Brothers.”
“If you’re in the music business, and you’re a brother team, both of ya gets judged by what either one of you does. So, it was the Louvin Brothers that was undependable. It hurt money-wise, and date-wise. I knew that someone had to leave.”
“I was told 100 times (by Ira), ‘When we get back off of this trip, I’m out of this rotten business.’ So, finally, on Aug. 18th, 1963, we did a show with Ray Price in Watseka, IL. He started in talkin’ about quitin’. And I said, ‘Well, you’re right. I’ve never said this (myself), but I’ve heard it (from you) 1000′s of times. But you’re right. We’ve just worked the last date we’ll ever work together, because I’m quitting.’ And I did.”
“So, that was that. It never came to the point where you’d fight on stage, but the tension was more than you would want to put up with.”
Charlie went onward and upwards, remaining, to this day, one of the most beloved country icons of all time. Ira, well…Ira fought the devil and he fought him hard.
He tried at a fourth marriage, to a talented singer named Anne Florence, and for a while – it seemed to stick. The couple toured together, but without Charlie, ever dependable, around to smooth out the edges, Ira struggled to find gigs. He soon burned through his money, as well as his friends. And eventually, his drinking would eat away at him, turn him bitter and finally – take everything he had.
In 1965, at age 41, Ira, his pretty wife, and four others would be dead in a violent car crash, a brutal head-on collison on a dark country road, just outside Williamsburg, Missouri.
A few years earlier the Louvins had cut a song called ‘Wreck on the Highway’, “I heard the crash on the highway,” sang Ira, “but I didn’t hear nobody pray.”
The black irony about Ira’s death, was that – despite the fact that he had a warrant out for his arrest on a DUI charge, it was the driver in the other vehicle who was drunk, and blind drunk at that. The papers reported an autopsy that revealed the presence of alcohol, nine times over the legal limit.
This fact, however did little to soothe Charlie Louvin, who remains devastated by his brother’s death to this day.
“He was told by thousands of people that whiskey was gonna kill him, and anyway you look at it, eventually, it did.”
What remains, however, of Ira and Charlie’s potent musical partnership, is a enduring legacy that continues to evolve as time passes. Their music was admired and embraced, both by their peers, by the generation who followed directly in their steps and onwards… You can hear the Brothers in harmonies of the Everly Brothers, in the country rock sway of The Byrds and Gram Parsons, in the honey-voiced songs of Emmylou Harris… and later…in the gut wrench earnestness of Wilco and Will Oldham and in the Southern Gothic darkness of The White Stripes.
And you can be sure we’ll be hearing that elating, unforgettable sound, inspiring many more great songwriters yet to come.
Charlie himself has become the gracious guardian of the Louvin legacy, still writing, singing, touring and paying homage to the sound he was so instrumental in creating.
At this writing, Charlie is about undergo surgery in a fight against pancreatic cancer, but he’s facing that enemy with same wry wit and fearless swagger that have guided him through a lifetime of musical adventures.
About the Louvin-penned Satan is Real track “Afraid to Die”, Charlie has this to say.
“I’m really not afraid to die. Seriously. There’s gotta be better places. I think one of these days I’m gonna find out.”
As we all will.
But in the meantime, let’s count our blessings, kiss our loved ones, put the needle down….and praise the Good Word of Ira and Charlie Louvin.
Dear Reader: Charlie passed away on January 26, 2011. I was lucky enough to speak to him just before he moved on. The above was originally published as liner notes for the wonderful Louvin Brothers releases from Light in The Attic. See here for more info – http://lightintheattic.net/