I first heard of the Louvin Brothers when I saw the cover for their classic gospel album Satan is Real in one of those collections of strange album art one often found in the early days of the Internet. It was probably right next to Zip Zap Rap or some shit. This was also in the days before there was a YouTube for learning right away what these records sounded like.
So, two skinny guys in white suits looking crazy in front of a cardboard Satan. I'm pretty sure I laughed at it and moved on without ever considering the possibility of Satan is Real being good music. We all have our prejudices. Eventually I did manage to hear the song "Satan is Real," as well as "The Great Atomic Power," and... well holy shit. They sound exactly like this cover. Such a visceral and literal and threatening religiosity -- enough to make a cardboard Satan kind of frightening in his goofiness -- seemed unbelievable to me. I found myself listening over and over, but for some time I couldn't quite say that I liked the stuff.
Eventually -- as I got past that silly "country is only good when it's Johnny Cash" way of thinking -- I started to wonder if maybe the eerie harmonies of the Louvin Brothers got such a strong reaction out of me because they were genuinely wonderful. Maybe, just maybe, I wasn't giving the brothers enough credit and the affecting strangeness of their music was intentional -- which is not to say insincere. Somewhere along the way, my appreciation had moved from "ironic" (whatever that even means) to achingly genuine.
I think Nathan Rabin explains it best when he says, "It would be easy to write off 'The Great Atomic Power' as Cold War kitsch if it weren’t such a transcendent work of art." The fact that the Louvin worldview, and its take on religion, are about 180 degrees from my own stopped dictating how I felt about the genuine emotion and intensity in their music.
And of course I only liked the brothers more when I realized that their music wasn't all fire and brimstone -- those Louvins were also incredibly adept at making the saddest songs you have ever heard. If there's no clearly delineated Judeo-Christian God in a Louvin Brothers song, you can bet there'll be vaguely defined fates lurking behind all the egregious heartbreak and murder. This inherent sadness grows even more fascinating when you learn what a tortured fuck-up Ira Louvin was. Prone to heavy-drinking, vicious anger, womanizing, and smashing his mandolin on-stage back in the 1950s.
All of which is to say that the other day I read the beginning of Charlie Louvin's book Satan is Real online. I don't usually have much interest in showbiz autobiographies, but that first chapter, all page-and-a-half of it, reads like something out of a hard-bitten mid-century noir and I bought the book right away. I finished the book on Tuesday and had already loaned it to someone else by Wednesday.