Given the lateness of the current cultural hour, it may be impossible to fully comprehend the worldview of country music in the 1950s. Listening to the long-ago recordings of Kitty Wells, Lefty Frizzell and The Louvin Brothers today, one gets the sense of an America that loved itself despite its sinful traps, religious mania and social dislocation. Duality ruled, and The Louvin Brothers' 1959 album Satan Is Real stands as one of the great expressions of that duality — the harmonies of Charlie and Ira Louvin intertwine in a show of familial warmth, but the music flirts with demon rock 'n' roll, and describes a landscape as treacherous as any of those sketched in the stories of fellow Southerner Flannery O'Connor.
Like O'Connor, Ira and Charlie Louvin believed themselves to be artists, even if the rest of the world seemed slow to acknowledge that fact. Incorporating attributes derived from the close-harmony work of such forebears as The Blue Sky Boys and The Delmore Brothers, the Louvins' music skipped and swung, but retained a hard edge that rendered even their waltz-time numbers something less than courtly, and their harmonies something more than brotherly.
Born in Henager, Ala., in 1927, Charlie began singing gospel with his slightly older brother Ira, and the duo cut their teeth on the radio in Knoxville and Memphis. It took them a few years to make the grade in Nashville, but they eventually landed a spot on the Grand Ole Opry in 1955. Charlie sang in a smooth tenor voice, while Ira — legendarily the more mercurial Louvin Brother — pitched in with his high tenor and created driving bluegrass-influenced lines on his mandolin.
Their recordings for Decca and MGM have held up well — 1952's "The Great Atomic Power" still sounds unhinged today — but it was the Louvins' Capitol singles and albums that established them as one of country's greatest acts. In fact, it was in 1956 — the time of Elvis Presley's ascendancy — that Charlie and Ira produced such great singles as "Cash on the Barrel Head" and "I Don't Believe You've Met My Baby." Colloquial and high-spirited in its embrace of the cold, hard facts of life, the Louvins' late-'50s work sounds something like rock 'n' roll — with rebellion replaced by fatalism.
Pressured by Capitol to keep up with the times, Charlie and Ira flirted with rockabilly and de-emphasized Ira's brilliant mandolin parts. As usual, record-company tinkering ignored artistic intent, but the Louvins managed to make Satan Is Real, an album that at first glance — and first listen — seems so homespun and impossibly pious as to be hardly worth the effort. Unless you actually believe in the devil.
Don't let the cover, or the simple little two- and three-minute tunes, deceive you. Announced by the arresting image of Ira and Charlie surrounded by flames and overseen by a red, cross-eyed devil — this Satan was made of plywood, and the fires of hell were produced by kerosene and old automobile tires — Satan Is Real is a masterpiece. If the great films noir of the '40s and '50s investigated the intersection of lust, greed and middle-class aspiration, Satan Is Real explored the souls of country boys for whom the big city was a snare — Birmingham or Nashville might not have been L.A., but the temptations were similar enough.
The title track features a recitation by "a little old man bent with age" who confesses his sins in a country church, while "The Drunkard's Doom" concerns a husband who enjoys a "social glass" before returning home, where his wife stands over their dead infant. Satan Is Real also contains "The Christian Life," which found its way onto The Byrds' tongue-in-cheek 1968 country-rock album Sweetheart of the Rodeo.
After Ira died in a 1965 car accident, Charlie continued to record. Gram Parsons was one of the many artists who covered the Louvins' material — his 1973 rendering of "Cash on the Barrel Head" brought their songs to a new generation. An even younger generation discovered Satan Is Real and other Louvins classics, although one wonders how much of their admiration was based on the kitsch-aesthetic strictures of the '80s.
Diagnosed with pancreatic cancer earlier this year, Charlie has kept up a lively performance and recording schedule. He has released some good music in his old age, including 2007's Charlie Louvin and this year's The Battles Rage On, and remains pragmatic about his achievements. As he says, "The sound of the music I do, I don't sing right on top of the music and I don't sing in front of the music. A picker that's playin' with me, if he sticks with the tempo and the melody, then I'll always get out."