Many writers have seized on the Cain-and-Abel angle of Ira and Charlie Louvin, otherwise known as the legendary country duo The Louvin Brothers. But none of those writers has ever been Charlie himself. Just before his death in 2011, the 83-year-old icon completed Satan Is Real: The Ballad Of The Louvin Brothers, an account of his tumultuous relationship with his elder brother Ira, who died in a car wreck in 1965 after a lifetime of booze and vice. The title refers to the Louvins’ infamous 1960 country-gospel album, Satan Is Real, which means the brothers brought all those biblical allusions on themselves. But as Charlie recounts, the impulses that drove them to triumph and tragedy were as real as the demons they felt haunted this world.
Opening with a grim recollection of the brothers’ hardscrabble childhoods in Sand Mountain, Alabama, Charlie reopens many old wounds: their father’s violence, their family’s poverty, and the determination to escape both that drove them to make music. After years of working their way steadily through the roadhouse-and-radio-show circuit, the innovative duo reached the pinnacle of their ambition—the Grand Ole Opry. Success became a curse, though, as Ira’s lust for alcohol and self-destruction helped lead to his death at the height of their fame. Much of that acclaim stemmed from Satan Is Real, a skeletal, hellfire-choked record that didn’t preach the gospel as much as wheezed it. Charlie, however, held no illusions about their music, noting in retrospect that their songs of salvation might “tell you that if you’re a good person, a righteous person, then you can go to heaven. But if you think you can do anything you want and still go to heaven, you’re full of shit.”
Charlie doesn’t devote much space to his lengthy, post-Ira career as a sage statesman of country music. The book, like Charlie’s solo work, is overshadowed by the sins of the brother. But it also doesn’t dwell on morbid accounts; the book includes unfussy, often funny accounts of the brothers’ run-ins with the likes of Hank Williams, Elvis Presley, Kris Kristofferson, and Johnny Cash. (One of the book’s best scenes recounts how the up-and-coming Cash started eating soda crackers prior to singing after he saw Charlie do it once—wrongly thinking it was Charlie’s secret to conditioning his voice.) Besides brightening an otherwise fatalistic mood, these vignettes serve a subtle yet vital purpose: securing The Louvins’ lives—and their songs—in the country-music firmament where they belong.
In addition to expanding an essential chapter in the history of country, Satan Is Real succeeds in a more immediate way: as a piece of powerful, rhythmic lyricism. Like his songwriting, Charlie’s stark yet warm prose doesn’t waste a word or note. Flowing from anecdote to anecdote, he hits a pitch-perfect harmony between the sacred and the profane, contrasting tender memories and colorful Americana with bursts of harrowing brutality and ugliness. After all, as his raucous chronicle makes clear, he and Ira had bits of Cain and Abel in each of them—only in Ira’s case, Cain took the lead.
Appropriately, Satan Is Real’s most potent moment comes in musical form. After ending his narrative with a grinning, chilling callback to the 1965 accident that ended one life and crippled another, the book’s last page bears the lyrics of Charlie’s mournful ode to his brother, titled simply “Ira”: “You were the king of Sand Mountain, at least I thought so / You had a knack for high tenor, and I sang the low / Alabama to the Opry was the second-hardest road / The worst was me losing you and singing all alone.” That same grit, gravity, and heart-piercing poignancy makes Satan Is Real the soulful equal of any Louvin Brothers song.