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Week 14: The Louvin Brothers’ tragic songs of Satan’s realness 

A.V. Club head writer and hip-hop specialist Nathan Rabin recently decided to spend a year or two immersing himself in the canon of country music, a genre he knew little about but was keen to explore. The result: “Nashville Or Bust,” a series of essays about seminal country artists. After 52 entries, Rabin plans to travel south and explore some of country music’s most hallowed landmarks and institutions.

As a child, I lived in fear of everything. I was a sentient ball of anxiety convinced that a nuclear strike lurked forever on the horizon, followed by an eternity in hell. I used to watch the fiery tirades of UHF televangelists and tremble at the agonies awaiting my heathen soul. 

So it’s a good thing I was an adult by the time I encountered the music of The Louvin Brothers, this week’s entry in Nashville Or Bust. If I had heard the song “The Great Atomic Power” as a 9-year-old scared of his own shadow and certain he’d soon be spelling America with a K and celebrating May Day instead of Chanakoonah, I’m fairly certain I’d have died instantly of a neuroses-induced aneurysm.

“The Great Atomic Power”: Is there a more American song title in the history of popular music? Every word bleeds red, white, and blue. Great: “Hello, ever heard of the good old U.S.A., greatest country ever?” Atomic: Who is more atomic than us? We showed up those rascally Russkies by dropping “da bomb” on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, and created an ultra-cool race of gnarly mutants via various nuclear tests. Power? Dude, is anyone more powerful than our bad selves? I’m such a ferocious patriot, I’m even going to claim “The” for the United States cuz we’re “The” country, as in “The” only country that matters. U.S.A.! U.S.A.!

In four potent words, Charlie and Ira Louvin created musical shock and awe. With long, lean limbs and skin stretched taut over bony features, The Louvins looked like scarecrows, sentientskeletons, or archangels of heavenly vengeance. In songs like “The Great Atomic Power,” they act as God’s enforcers, bullies for Christ scaring non-believers into piety and devotion. 

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 Louvins conjure up a nuclear apocalypse that seems more like an inevitability than a possibility, then ask us to contemplate the moment when “a terrible explosion may rain down upon on our land, leaving horrible destruction blotting out the works of man.” Then there are two potential destinies: “Are you ready for that great atomic power, will you rise and meet your savior in the air?” or “Will you shudder, will you cry, when the fire rains from on high?”

The Louvins’ Jesus isn’t some longhaired, namby-pamby peacenik in sandals and beads preaching brotherhood and love. No, he’s a badass warrior in perpetual combat with Satan’s hordes. It’s Action Jesus that the Louvins invoke when they sing of “an army who can conquer all the enemy’s great band / It’s a regiment of Christians guided by the Savior’s hand” who will save his children from an awful fate when “the mushroom of destruction falls in all its fury great.”

To tardily answer the Louvins’ question about whether I’m ready to meet my savior: Oh, God no. Gimme a half-century or so to get my shit together, and I’ll get back to you. The Louvin Brothers preached a fire-and-brimstone theology of bottomless torment and endless grace. They sneered at moral relativism and shades of grey, opting for a black-and-white worldview that separated the world cleanly into sinners and saints, the redeemed and the damned. 

Ira Louvin could preach to sinners convincingly because he was a world-class hedonist himself. His prodigious gifts as a harmony singer, songwriter, and mandolin player routinely opened doors that his volatile temper, massive ego, womanizing, propensity for violence, and alcoholism then closed. He felt he’d been called to spread God’s word as a preacher, and he never forgave himself for choosing the more secular world of music.

So when the Louvins scolded sinners and warned of the evils of the ungodly world, Ira must have felt as implicated by his words as I did. Tales of Ira’s personal demons are legendary. He was notorious for smashing his mandolin when inebriated. In his short life, he was married four times. His third wife, Faye, nearly shot him to death. There Ira was, innocently trying to strangle her during one of his patented drunken rages, and she went and shot him multiple times. The story had a cute ending, though; Faye swore that if Ira survived being shot, she’d have no choice but to kill him.

When Ira sang alongside brother Charlie about death, tortured relationships, drinking, sin, murder, and the eviscerating emptiness of this corrupt world on 1956’s Tragic Songs Of Life, it was with no small amount of first-hand experience. A collection of folk songs, murder ballads, and traditional numbers passed down from generation to generation, Life explores a broad emotional thematic palette using the close-harmony template established by key inspirations like The Monroe Brothers. It celebrates the natural beauty of the South (“Kentucky” and “Alabama”), young love (“A Tiny Broken Heart,” a precious number about the romantic despair of a 7-year-old whose girlfriend moves away) and the glory and sadness of letting go (“Let Her Go, God Bless Her”), but the songs that most closely embody the album’s grim title are the ones that leave the deepest impression. 

“Knoxville Girl” is told from the perspective of a man who decides, seemingly without motive or forethought, to murder his girlfriend. The Brothers bring an unnerving intensity to the song’s bleak evocation of senseless slaughter. The woman’s anguished pleas for her life make no impression on the narrator: “She fell down on her bended knees, for mercy she did cry / ‘Oh Willy dear, don’t kill me here, I’m unprepared to die’ / She never spoke another word, I only beat her more / Until the ground around me with her blood did flow.”

The Louvins opt for a murder-light version of the trusty old chestnut “In The Pines”—a song whose lineage stretches far beyond Leadbelly and Nirvana—but Tragic Songs Of Life isn’t exactly hurting for bloodshed. In “Katie Dear,” star-crossed young lovers decide to impale themselves on a silver dagger rather than be kept apart by disapproving parents.

And “My Brother’s Will” is a master class in the Brothers’ pet themes. In another blood-soaked melodrama rife with biblical themes, the narrator’s brother is felled by a stray bullet while he’s out hunting. With his dying words, he makes one last creepy request: He wants the narrator to marry their beloved Sally, so she won’t be alone. Once, the brothers were rivals for Sally. It’s too late, alas, for Sally has already married another.

Let’s count the layers of heartbreak: There’s a man senselessly slaughtered in a hunting accident. There’s the trauma of his brother watching him die. There’s the agony of a man who lost the love of his life to his own brother, and the agony of the brother, who can’t fulfill a dying man’s wish. 

In other hands, the song could have devolved into histrionic camp, but the Louvins bring a frightening urgency to its fevered melodrama. They seemed to be emissaries of the dark world of their songs, otherworldly figures of vengeance and redemption.

The cover of 1960’s Satan Is Real features the Brothers in white suits with black, vaguely New Wave ties, crooning with outstretched arms in front of tire fires and a 12-foot plywood Satan. Even people who have never heard of the Louvins have often seen this cover, which instantly wormed its way into the annals of Christian high kitsch. It’s a patently absurd image, but it also perfectly mirrors the fire-breathing literalism of the Brothers’ Christianity.

The title track to Satan Is Real depicts the devil not as an allegorical figure or a symbolic manifestation of mankind’s darkest impulses, but as a very solid figure working furtively to undermine the Lord. As its title suggests, “There’s A Higher Power” serves as an unofficial sequel to “The Great Atomic Power.” It finds the Brothers in full-on preacher mode, warning of the wickedness and temptations of a modern world in love with atom bombs and the latest technological doodads, yet dangerously removed from the highest power of all—Christ’s love.

In its first two tracks of Satan Is Real, the Louvins ponder hell and heaven, Satan and The Lord. In its third track, they turn their attention to puny man-animals torn between the temptations of secular sin and the spiritual satisfaction of the Christian life. “The Christian Life” derives some of its hypnotic power from the artful juxtaposition of the mundane and the sacred, between colloquialisms like “buddies” and churchy references to “heeding God’s call,” being “shunned” by those buddies, and feeling “burdened” by their faithlessness. The melody is soft and lilting, but the words are harsh. The singer croons bitterly of former friends who “find pleasure in things I despise.” Yet there’s something strangely wavering about the lead vocals. It’s as if Ira is trying to convince himself as much as the listener that he prefers the Christian life to one of wine, women, and song. The truth of the matter, of course, is that Ira himself found pleasure in those things he despised. He also found misery. 

Ira and Charlie bring the language and terminology of the Bible to the honky-tonk on “The River Of Jordan,” a jaunty electrified hymn with bar-room-unfriendly lyrics like “King Naaman was stricken with dreaded leprosy.” With Satan Is Real, the Louvins push everything to the extreme: incredibly high, tight interlocking harmonies (according to country lore, when Emmylou Harris first heard Ira’s sky-high vocals, she thought he was the most talented female singer she’d ever heard); extreme faith; and brutal emotional intensity. If the Louvins hadn’t been such superlative musicians, they could have flourished as cult leaders. In an alternate universe somewhere, they never picked up a mandolin or guitar, and they died alongside dozens of their followers in a heavily armed standoff with the FBI. There was more than a hint of madness lurking behind their strident declarations of love for Christ.

Though pigeonholed as gospel artists early on, The Louvin Brothers played a fairly broad array of music. When they joined the Grand Ol’ Opry, they were “encouraged” to play more secular fare, since, in the immortal words of an Opry bigwig, “you can’t sell tobacco with gospel music.” “Pitfall,” from 1958’s The Family Who Prays, is a sprightly tale of romantic obsession distinguished by Joe Meek-style studio trickery and playful use of echo, while the cheeky story song “Cash On The Barrelhead,” from 1961’s Encore, was later covered by Gram Parsons and Dolly Parton. 

Ira flirted with rock music, alienated Elvis by excoriating him for playing secular music instead of the gospel close to his heart, and had a Minnie Pearl-style drag alter ego he trotted out from time to time. He was a complicated man, and no one understood him like his women. (Ira Louvin!) But the image of The Louvin Brothers that lingers in my mind and in the public imagination is of two creepily smiling young men standing in the black-golden fires of hell in white suits, grinning madly as they try to frighten lost little lambs back onto the straight and narrow path. 

The Louvin Brothers’ lives ended up mirroring the severe moral universe of their songs. In a creepy reprise of “Wreck On The Highway”—a song that has the singular distinction of being morbid even for a Louvin Brothers song—Ira was killed by a drunk driver at age 41. Open containers of liquor were found in Ira’s car; at the time of his death, there was a warrant out for his arrest for driving under the influence. Charlie, meanwhile, went on to have a stable, successful solo career. In 2007, he released a self-titled album on which he collaborated with fans like George Jones, Tom T. Hall, Elvis Costello, Will Oldham, and Jeff Tweedy, among others. 

The moral, devout, teetotaler brother lived a prosperous life in service of the Lord, while the brother ruled by lust for liquor and female flesh died young in a car crash where liquor mixed with blood in the sort of vivid Southern Gothic tableau that popped up so frequently in the brothers’ songs. Life rarely mimics art so clearly as that.

Up Next on Nashville Or Bust:

Jimmie Rodgers 

George Jones 

Billy Joe Shaver 

Buck Owens 

Emmylou Harris