In entertainment, an awful lot of stuff happens behind closed doors, from canceling TV shows to organizing music festival lineups. While the public sees the end product, they don’t see what it took to get there. In Expert Witness, The A.V. Club talks to industry insiders about the actual business of entertainment in hopes of shedding some light on how the pop-culture sausage gets made.
The paradoxical task of co-writing another person’s autobiography is hard enough—but it’s even harder when the subject of the book dies before it’s done. Benjamin Whitmer faced this in 2011, when country legend Charlie Louvin lost his battle with cancer while Whitmer was in the midst of finishing the memoir he was co-writing with Louvin, Satan Is Real: The Ballad Of The Louvin Brothers. The book was published in 2012 by Igniter, the HarperCollins imprint launched in 2010 by authors Neil Strauss and Anthony Bozza. Bozza himself has co-written many celebrity autobiographies, but Whitmer had no prior experience in music journalism before taking on the project. Instead, the Colorado-based author had written only fiction. As it turned out, that expertise in storytelling served him well after he spent a week with Louvin in his native Tennessee.
Louvin lived to be 83, but his life wasn’t an easy one. He was born in rural poverty and struggled with the ghosts of hardship, violence, and tragedy even after becoming one of the most revered artists in country-music history. With his older brother Ira, Charlie formed the duo The Louvin Brothers, who would become most famous for their 1959 album Satan Is Real, a stark, soulful portrait of hellfire and redemption that stands as one of the greatest country records of all time. Ira died in a car wreck in 1965, but Charlie soldiered on, influencing untold numbers of artists, being inducted into the Country Music Hall Of Fame, and eventually enjoying a comeback in the 21st century thanks in part to duets with the likes of Jeff Tweedy and Elvis Costello. That led to the autobiography Whitmer signed on to co-write, which wound up being a much more poignant experience than he could have imagined.
Whitmer spoke with The A.V. Club about his time hanging out on the porch of a country icon, the strangeness of writing in someone else’s voice, and why he was the wrong guy to tell Louvin’s story to begin with.
The A.V. Club: You’re not a nonfiction writer by trade, right?
Benjamin Whitmer: No. I mostly write noir novels. Or at least that’s what I’m told. I never meant them to be noir. I guess I just have this thing for complicated protagonists. And guns. [Laughs.]
AVC: How did you come across a gig co-writing Charlie Louvin’s autobiography?
BW: It came out of nowhere. My first novel, Pike, had come out through a small press in Oakland, and it got sort of a cult following. But not many people had read it. I was really discouraged, and I was trying to figure out what to do with my next novel. My agent called me up and said, “I may have this gig for you. It’s a book about a bluegrass legend. I don’t know who it is. Are you interested?” My answer was, “Does it pay? If it pays, I’m interested.” My agent said, “It’s Charlie Louvin.” And I said, “That’s not bluegrass, that’s country.”
AVC: You were already familiar with Louvin’s music?
BW: I grew up with hippies, but I knew The Louvin Brothers. And I’m a huge Nick Cave fan, so I knew his version of “Knoxville Girl” [the traditional Appalachian murder ballad covered by both The Louvin Brothers and Cave]. My answer was yes, so I went back and tried to find the only chapter of Pike that wasn’t completely fucking insane for my agent to send off to the editors. They loved it. They came back and said, “This is great. We love the way you captured the 1950s.” When I read that, I chuckled. My book wasn’t set in the 1950s. But I said, “Okay.” [Laughs.] They also said they loved my voice as a Southern writer, but I’m not. I’m from Ohio.
AVC: So they hired a Southern author who was immersed in the ’50s to write about the bluegrass legend Charlie Louvin, although none of those things were true.
BW: Right. At the time, though, they knew Charlie had pancreatic cancer, so they knew they had to move quickly. They wanted me to fly down to Tennessee two weeks after that to interview Charlie. I had a baby on the way. My now ex-wife didn’t like the idea. [Laughs.] But I knew I had to do it. Since I was 4 years old, my hero has been Johnny Cash. And I knew I was going to get to sit on a back porch somewhere and smoke a cigarette and talk with Charlie Louvin about Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, and all my other heroes.
AVC: How much preliminary research did you have to do?
BW: A lot. When I first talked to Charlie on the phone, he said, “I can’t sit down and give you the story of my whole life. I’m just not capable of that. But if you can come at me with a bunch of questions, I can do it.” So I read a bunch of what had been written about The Louvin Brothers already. I knew the basic story of Charlie and Ira. As I did that, I got really excited. I drew up something like 300 fucking questions and went down to meet him. He lived outside Nashville, but he hates the town of Nashville with a passion. He was and he wasn’t a Nashville-establishment kind of guy. He never could stand the scene, and he was never really good at making friends. Anyway, I stayed in a little town outside of Nashville called Manchester, and I’d go over and sit on his porch and smoke. And we’d talk.
AVC: What was that first meeting with Louvin like?
BW: I knocked on his door, and there he was. His son Sonny was there. Wonderful guy. Charlie’s wife, Betty, is a beautiful person, and she cooked us lunch. We just went out on the porch, and I dug up a pack of cigarettes, my tape recorder, and my 300 questions. A lot of the time, though, I would just record little things that he said that didn’t have anything to do with my questions. He would just pop off with shit. Once I understood that his voice was the book, everything was good. And it took me about 15 seconds with him to figure that out.
AVC: Had you ever done any kind of journalism before?
BW: Never. I was horrible for this job. But Neil Strauss told me, “We actually don’t want someone with a music background. We want someone to go out and write a book. If we sold a copy of this book to every Louvin Brothers fan on the planet, that would not be enough. We need an actual story.” So he was looking for someone, I guess, who could write a story. And that’s what I was interested in, too. I love country music, but I don’t really care who the producer was on this album or stuff like that.
AVC: Was Louvin different in person than how you’d envisioned him?
BW: No. He was exactly the way I’d imagined. I take that back. There were a couple things that were different. He was gruffer than I thought he was going to be. He was cruder than I thought he was going to be. And he was much more straightforward than I thought he was going to be. I got the feeling he knew very well that he was at the end of his life, and he was just going to say whatever the hell he wanted. He reminded me a lot of my grandfather and the guys he’d go to the bar and hang out with when I was a kid. Just another one of the old guys swapping stories. I took that as a good sign.
AVC: So you struck a rapport right away?
BW: I feel like I grew up closer to Charlie than I did with most of my own generation. When he’d talk about growing up with nothing but an outhouse, I knew what he meant. I knew how much that sucked. [Laughs.]
AVC: You grew up in the kind of rural environment that Louvin did during the ’20s and ’30s?
BW: Yeah, we didn’t have running water or electricity or anything.
AVC: A huge part of the book is capturing Louvin’s hardscrabble upbringing.
BW: Neil Strauss told me to read two things going into this project: classic literature and some of the great country-music autobiographies, like Loretta Lynn’s Coal Miner’s Daughter [co-written with George Vecsey]. The book has that line, which is in the song too, “We were poor, but we had love.” When I read that, the first thing I thought was “Fuck that.” I will back out of this deal immediately if Charlie gives me even a hint of that. Neil agreed with me on that. He said, “If you get the feeling that he’s doing things through a cheesecloth, don’t do the project. And don’t let us do it.”
AVC: No whitewashing.
BW: Exactly. I’ve never known poverty to make anyone nicer or better. I’ve never known it to ennoble anybody. Once I started talking to Charlie, I knew immediately that he was not going to do that. Thank God.
AVC: What precisely was your collaborative process with Louvin?
BW: Well, it was kind of sad. The process in a lot of ways was dictated by the cancer. I was only down there for a week, and I had no fucking idea how much tape I was supposed to take to record enough material for a book. Later I was told, “You should have about 15 hours of interviews.” I had about 45 by the end of it. After I left Tennessee, I still talked to him over the phone for two or three hours every day. At least until a few days before he died, when he was just totally out of it. Basically I’d just ask him questions like, “Charlie, I read somewhere that your mom taught you these old songs. Can you tell me how she taught them to you?” And then he would tell me the story, and I’d say, “Oh, that’s wonderful.” And it was. Maybe a week later, he would tell the same story again. He would forget that he’d told it. Sometimes I’d have four or five iterations of the same story. I heard a thing on NPR once about how the more you access memories, the less accurate they are. Every time you access them, you change them. That’s why I’d have to take these different versions of the same story and sort them out. Sometimes the details would be different, and sometimes the theme of the story would finally come through.
AVC: Were there any touchy subjects?
BW: Initially he was very resistant to talking about Ira or their dad. He would say, “Ira didn’t end up the way he did because of our dad. He had nothing to do with that.” But three or four times of telling a certain story, Charlie would say, “Well…” You could start to see it in his eyes. Then he’d tell the real story.
AVC: Was there anything about his life that he wouldn’t discuss at all?
BW: No. Sometimes he would say, “Ben, does that recorder have an off button?” [Laughs.] And then he would tell me a story that he said I couldn’t print. And I didn’t.
AVC: Were they good stories?
AVC: Would you tell any of them now?
BW: I’ll die with them.
AVC: Charlie Louvin died in 2011. At what point in the book’s creation were you when you got the news?
BW: We were done with the book. The editing hadn’t been done yet, but we were going back and forth and rearranging. One of the sections toward the end got moved up to the front. There were a lot of smart moves on Neil’s part. But it was pretty much set.
AVC: Did Charlie get to read any of the manuscript?
BW: I know he read the first three or four chapters. His wife, Betty, at one point said, “I don’t like all the f-words in there.” I had to tell her, I didn’t make them up. Those were Charlie’s. After he read the first chapter, he said, “That’s awful Hollywood, Ben.” [Laughs.] I just said, “You told it to me.”
AVC: Who called you to tell you he’d died?
BW: His son Sonny. I’ll be honest with you: Charlie had me pumped. He thought he’d beat the cancer, and I was starting to believe that, too. I don’t feel that way about pancreatic cancer anymore. When I was down in Tennessee, he could barely eat anything. We’d go to this diner, and all he could eat was peach cobbler. Even then he’d tell me, “This peach cobbler tastes like a cat pissed on it, Ben.” But his appetite had come back right before he died.
AVC: How do you think Louvin felt about his life, looking back on it as you interviewed him?
BW: He felt so left behind. Like nobody cared about his story. He would have loved to see the book reviewed in The New York Times and stuff. That would have meant so much to him. I wish he would have been around. It made me sad that he died, but it also made me sad that he didn’t get to see how much people cared about the book.
AVC: How much of the book would you say is you, and how much is Charlie?
BW: I was like an actor playing a role. That’s what I was doing. Neil told me I could tell Charlie’s story any way I wanted, but I went into it thinking, “This is his story. I don’t have the right to make it anyone else’s story, mine included.” My job was to interpret that story as faithfully as I could, like interpreting somebody else’s song. That’s the way I took it. He got in my blood.
AVC: Would you ever co-write someone else’s autobiography?
BW: No. It’s a year of your life. It’s a fucking year. It would have to be somebody real interesting, like Charlie. The only person I’d probably do it for is Mel Gibson.
AVC: Why Mel Gibson?
BW: Because he hates himself so much, he needs someone else to tell his story. [Laughs.] And I think I’m the guy.