Fist fights & harmonies
The rise and fall of a legendary country duo
Published: February 8, 2012
Satan Is Real:
The Ballad of the Louvin Brothers
Charlie Louvin with Benjamin Whitmer
Igniter, 320 pp., $22.99
Charlie Louvin's new autobiography starts with the time he "beat the shit out of" his older brother Ira for calling their mother a bitch to her face. "He was lucky it was just words too," Charlie continues. "If he'd have touched her, I'd still be in prison." The anecdote sets the tone and the course for this slim, slight, but entertaining book. All their lives, Charlie and Ira Louvin, né Loudermilk, struggled together to escape rural poverty in Alabama through their musical knack and sublime brotherly harmonies, becoming Grand Ole Opry stars and country-music legends in the process. All their lives, they argued and fought, often fueled by Ira's volatile personality and prodigious drinking. The brothers split professionally in 1963 and Ira died in a car accident in 1965, yet this account isn't subtitled The Ballad of Charlie Louvin. The brothers' rise and fall as a unit and an act rightly forms the substance of Charlie's lively recollection.
And while it is his recollection, the just-folks prose (written with Benjamin Whitmer) and the basic facts make it easy to take Charlie (who died in 2011, two months after the book was finished) at his word. He stayed married to the same woman for 61 years, and his conversational account of his career is humble about his accomplishments and clear-eyed about hard touring, tough breaks, and frustrations with the business and his brother. But even long dead, Ira still somewhat overshadows Charlie here. Years before Pete Townshend or Kurt Cobain smashed their instruments, Ira Louvin sent scores of out-of-tune mandolins sailing into the nearest wall. He picked pointless fights with people who might have helped his career (e.g., drunkenly calling Elvis Presley a "white nigger"), and also with his four wives, the third of whom shot him six times after he tried to strangle her with a telephone cord.
The title of the book comes from one of the duo's better-known albums, as renowned for its garish cover (art directed by the brothers) as its God-fearing contents. While Charlie writes that he believes Ira's self-destructiveness came from ignoring a call to preach in favor of music, this is no hellfire-style account of a tortured soul. It is Charlie's story, after all, even though he allows that whenever he sang a Louvin Brothers song during his long solo career, he'd always "scoot off to the left so Ira can come in when it comes time for the harmonies."
> Email Lee Gardner