Satan Is Real by Charlie Louvin with Benjamin Whitmer | Book review
The Louvin Brothers get their due.
Ira and Charlie Louvin, one of the greatest duos in country music history, both had a deep love of music and a sometimes quixotic faith in their talent, but they shared little in regard to personality. Younger brother Charlie frequently followed his brother’s lead, whether it was toward youthful mischief (including, but not limited to, rogue animal husbandry) or into the music industry. Yet he rarely followed his brother’s example, and by avoiding the alcoholism, domestic violence, onstage tantrums and chaos that led to Ira’s early death, Charlie was able to make it to 83 and complete this compelling family history before his death last year.
Although this story includes every rural melodrama trope (cotton-picking youth, abusive father, teen marriage, sacred-profane inner battles, fistfights galore), the details are so distinct and the storytelling so sincere that Satan Is Real is genuinely caricature- and cliché-free. The twisting tale of their long, slow rise to the Grand Ole Opry included battling motion sickness while playing a gig on a live donkey merry-go-round, and detours into the military and civil service. But once they made it, their fantastic harmonizing, dynamic songwriting, and sometimes spooky tightrope walk teetering between gospel and secular themes made them legends.
Although perennially revered by traditional country music fans, the Louvins, I always assumed, lucked into their cult status among hipsters, due to the amazing graphics and bold title of their 1959 LP Satan Is Real, which featured a stunning sleeve (also used for this book’s cover) with the duo singing in front of a towering devil while faux flames surround them. As it turns out, the Louvins earned any love they got for that artwork, because they crafted the concept and the devil themselves (the latter out of Charlie’s son’s train table), the flames were real, and the story of the photo session is, literally, explosive. As is the tale of the fall of Ira and the survival of Charlie, a complex real-life fable of brotherly love and the perils of the American dream.