I swear, all I knew about THE LOUVIN BROTHERS aside from their amazing country/harmony/bluegrass duets from the 50s & 60s, I learned from this Mark Dancey comic in Motorbooty some years back (you’ll need to scroll at the bottom to read the comic’s four pages). Then I saw this hardcover book by CHARLIE LOUVIN (née Loudemilk) that recently came out, and the impulse to dig deeper into his and his brother’s dirty hillbilly laundry was too much to resist. The two brothers, who amassed a fantastic catalog of beautiful gospel and traditional country music right up until the form commercialized and left its roots, are ripe for all sorts of metaphors should you choose to apply them: Darkness and Light, Heaven and Hell, Sobriety and Drunkenness and so on – at least if you believe Charlie’s telling of their pained and somewhat tragic story. He wrote this book just months before he died in 2011, so it will likely stand as the final word on how these brothers climbed their way from poverty to show business royalty, and the many troubles they encountered on the way.
The book’s core is very much about the relationship of Charlie Louvin to his mandolin-playing brother Ira, and about how Ira’s demons (alcohol, womanizing, a complete and utter lack of outward humility and a paralyzing ego) did the duo in. It’s also, I think, Charlie’s big catharsis. He obviously spent most of his life feeling a bit like a doormat to his brother, who wrote most of their songs and who could easily command Charlie to do his bidding, whether it was to chop down a persimmon tree and risk a beating from their sadistic father, or to have Ira’s wife committed to a mental institution. Charlie plays himself off as the strong, responsible and somewhat silent half of the duo, who suffered much inner turmoil trying to keep his wild and unpredictable drunken hypocrite of a brother in line and their career going.
Funny enough, and yet totally appropriately, the book is written in Southern dialect in many parts. After a while you get used to this autobiography and its “We was traveling to Memphis and I was fixing to eat a hamburger”-style colloquialisms, and accept the deeper truths that are latent in the telling. Ira Louvin left a long, dark scar on this poor man’s life, and loomed exceptionally large in it until Ira’s death in 1965 (ironically, in a car accident in which the other driver was drunk). Yet you get the sense that Charlie, once freed of the burden of his joined-at-the-hip brother, really got to experience growing up and the liberating freedom that comes from embracing personal responsibility. I think Charlie had to overcome a bit of an ego problem of his own, in that he’d always been told by his brother that it was Ira that made the duo what it was, that it was really Ira’s group – and thus toward the end Charlie makes it abundantly clear how proud he is that he “had more Top 30 country hits” personally, in the years after 1965, than the Louvin Brothers ever had when they were together.
Along the way there are many great anecdotes told in short, 4-5 page chapters. There’s the famous one in which Ira calls Elvis Presley a “white nigger” to his face in a weird fit of drunken pique, and therefore cheats the band out millions of potential royalties had Elvis (a huge Louvins fan) ever covered a song of theirs – which he didn’t, after Ira’s unfortunate rant. There’s a bit about how they got on the Grand Old Opry after years of trying through a clever bluff, and how Charlie hates the Opry people still running the show in 2011. Their decision to “go secular” from their gospel roots is interesting, as is the great story of how they created the record cover (and now book cover) to the amazing “Satan Is Real” – one of two totally essential records of theirs in my opinion (the other is “Tragic Songs of Life”; you might want to pick up the “When I Stop Dreaming” collection as well).
One of the constants from so many memoirs I’ve read is, unfortunately, parental or domestic abuse – see the recent memoirs I reviewed by Alice Bag and Dan Fante. Well, the Louvins’ father beat the crap out of them as well, especially Ira, and Charlie believes it cast a huge shadow on them subsequently: why they left home to be musicians so early; why Ira was so insecure; why Ira was such a hideous drunk, and so on. It reminds me of a terrific Dan Carlin podcast from a couple years ago in which he theorized about the cumulative effect on history, and on historical figures, from centuries of child abuse and child neglect. In our slightly more enlightened age – which has really only taken hold in the past 1-2 generations, in which, in the west at least, child beatings are looked askance on – what will be the (presumably positive) effect on the children of today as they grow into adults? It’s a worthy aside, and one that I can’t help thinking about when I read about the torture past generations of children such as the Louvins had to endure.
“Satan Is Real: The Ballad of the Louvin Brothers” is a quick and very straightforward read, and captures a snapshot of Southern Americana as it existed in the 1930s, 40s, 50s and 60s. It’s certainly fortunate, and not a little bit lucky, that Charlie Louvin completed this memoir only just prior to his death, and we’re all the better for it because he done did.