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SATAN IS REAL
The Ballad of the Louvin Brothers
With Benjamin Whitmer
A foreword from Kris Kristofferson
“This memoir has a raw honesty, genuine grit, common sense and smokin’ down-home flavor that Louvin fans will relish.” – Publishers Weekly
“A real classic of Americana” – Booklist, Starred Review
Charlie Louvin, hailed in his obituary by the New York Times as “a member of one of the pre-eminent brother acts in country music and an inspiration to several generations of rock musicians” was a good, God-fearing, church-going, Christian gospel singer. His brother Ira was famously not.
Now, in collaboration with Igniter Books comes one of America’s great untold stories: the true saga of the Louvin Brothers, a mid-century Southern gothic Cain and Abel, and one of the greatest country duos of all time. In SATAN IS REAL: The Ballad of the Louvin Brothers (It Books/Igniter Books; January 3, 2012; Hardcover; $22.99), by Charlie Louvin with Benjamin Whitmer, the beautiful and tragic saga of the legendary Louvin Brothers is finally being told.
Born in Henagar, Alabama, Ira and Charlie grew up picking cotton, hunting with Papa, and singing songs with Mama, the daughter of a Baptist preacher. With their papa on a claw hammer banjo, music became the brothers’ pastime, perfected in the halls of a Sacred Harp church where the brothers first experimented with what would later become their trademark harmonies. As told to Benjamin Whitmer, SATAN IS REAL captures the authentic voice of the hardscrabble and hardworking brothers, who eventually turned to music as a way out of the cotton fields. Music became their escape from life on the farm – earning their first $50 for playing all day on a mule-drawn merry-go-round at a Fourth of July celebration – and became an entrée into fame.
SATAN IS REAL charts the Louvin Brothers rise, first as teenagers when they became the 4:30 AM regulars on WDEF, Chattanooga radio after winning a singing contest, and later as adults who grappled with the trappings of success. With stints in Knoxville and Memphis, the brothers started to get gigs around the country – including one in Dyess, Arkansas, where Charlie met a thirteen-year-old Johnny Cash. Too poor to come inside and hear the show, Charlie took a shine to the kid and let him listen from a bench near the stage. Cash watched Charlie eat a few soda crackers right before he went on to perform, and, many years later, when the two became friends, Cash revealed that he always ate soda crackers right before he went on stage for years because he thought that was how Charlie perfected his voice.
From 1952 – 1955, the brothers recorded nothing but gospel for Capital Records, auditioning relentlessly to fulfill their dream of playing at the Grand Ole Opry. When it finally did come true and they performed at the Opry for the first time in 1955, Charlie writes: “it just kept rolling, getting better and better.”
Still pegged as a solely gospel act, the brothers began itching to try secular music and their new label let them take a chance on a song Charlie perfected while serving in Korea – “When I Stop Dreaming.” It was their first single after they joined the Opry and it made it into the top ten on Billboard, and has been recorded by everybody from Johnny Cash to Ray Charles. But it was then that their troubles began. Ira’s heavy drinking and temper tantrums, disabling shows when he was disabled on whiskey, became a liability for the driven and sober Charlie, and here SATAN IS REAL explores the tragedy of the harmony team and details their growing divide.
A hard drinker, Ira was known for frequently smashing his mandolin onstage (even as it pained his brother to watch him do it); Ira was banned from performing at the Grand Ole Opry for several weeks after a scandal in which his wife shot him six times when he tried to choke her with a telephone cord; a name-calling altercation with Elvis Presley soured relations while they were on tour together (after Ira called the young rock-and-roller’s music “crap”), and brother Charlie witnessed it all. Although he wasn’t sure why he stayed with Ira as long as he did after he started to go downhill with all the drinking, Charlie reveals how he finally screwed up the courage to leave in SATAN IS REAL.
The Louvin Brothers, polar opposites who were in harmony only when singing, offer a dark and complex version of the timeless brother-against-brother story, spinning out of control against a backdrop of increasing country music success. Ira lived fast and died young, and SATAN IS REAL tells the story of the fatal car accident that took Ira’s life in 1965.
Packed with pictures and colorful anecdotes about the Louvins’ encounters with all of the country greats, including Hank Williams (too drunk to know that he had hundred dollar bills literally spilling out of his pockets), Bill Monroe (who sang at Ira’s funeral), and Kris Kristofferson (who was a janitor at studio when he stealthily passed a song to Charlie), among others, SATAN IS REAL is timed to the re-release of the brothers’ iconic 1960 album, Satan Is Real, which was reissued to great acclaim this fall. It was the brothers’ best-known record, not only for its iconic cover (also featured on the cover of this book) but for songs like “The Christian Life” and “The Kneeling Drunkard’s Plea,” famously covered by the Byrds and Johnny Cash, respectively. The reissue was packaged with a star-studded curatorial “best of” featuring classic original Louvin Brothers recordings handpicked by the likes of Beck, Emmylou Harris, Will Oldham, Devendra Banhart, Zooey Deschanel, Jim James, Dolly Parton and many more. The Louvin Brothers were an inspiration to so many musicians and yet their fascinating story, of brother-against-brother, has yet to be told.
With a foreword from Kris Kristofferson, who says “this autobiography is as real and as moving as his music,” SATAN IS REAL is the incredible tale of the sixty-plus-year career of Charlie Louvin, the timeless murder ballads of the Louvin Brothers, and two brothers bound together by love, hate, alcohol, blood, and music.
About the Authors:
Born July 7, 1927 in Henager, Alabama, Charlie Louvin recorded from 1947 to 1962 with his brother Ira as the Louvin Brothers. In 1955, they became members of the Grand Ole Opry and churned out thirteen hits on the Billboard country chart, including “When I Stop Believing,” “Cash on the Barrelhead,” and “Knoxville Girl.” Charlie’s solo career began in 1964 with a top five hit “I Don’t Love You Anymore,” and he followed it with twenty-nine Billboard charting singles and four Grammy nominations. Charlie Louvin passed away on January 26, 2011. For an interview with Charlie filmed shortly before his death, please visit: http://vimeo.com/16150599 For more on the Satan is Real album reissue, please visit: http://lightintheattic.net/artists/366-the-louvin-brothers
Benjamin Whitmer is the author of the novel Pike and a lifelong country music fan. He lives and writes in Denver, Colorado.