A prayer was led by an old country preacher, who then raised his hands as everyone stood and stood and sang: “My God is real.” A warm breeze through the open windows brought in the smell of new mown hay in a nearby field, and the singing of birds could be heard in the moment of silence as the preacher opened the Bible up to read. And then a little old man stood up, bent with age, his hair thin and white, and said:
“Preacher, tell them that Satan is real, too.”
The Louvin Brothers were born in the 1920’s to a family of Southern Baptists in Henegar, Alabama. Pioneers of the close harmony, they’re a part of country and Gospel history: real-life brothers whose careers together would stretch well into the 60’s. They released dozens of albums, many of them tightly focused around their faith. They were 40’s gospel musicians, and Baptists at that, so you have some idea of what to expect: rewards for the pious, punishments for the sinner, and redemption for the penitent – all wrapped up in the honey-sweet harmonies of Charlie and Ira, who dressed up like the country preachers in their songs. To listen to their music is to step back in time to a particular moment in music history, one when real-life seemed as straightforward as the stories in the Louvin Brothers’ songs. At least according to the Grand Ole Opry.
It’s a beautiful album, and one well-worth listening to on its own merits. But you’re probably wondering why this is a gospel country review, and not a description of a horror movie or whatever. Well, it’s because life isn’t like the Grand Ole Opry at all.
And because Satan is real.
(the following contains brief descriptions of domestic violence)
To start with, the Louvin Brothers’ real last name wasn’t Louvin at all, it was Loudermilk. And of the Loudermilk brothers, only Charlie was using his real name: Ira, the elder brother, was born Lonnie Loudermilk, and he had a reputation for less-than-Christian behaviour. To begin with, Ira was a drinker. And a womanizer. And on top of being twice his brother’s size, had an anger problem. Like some kind of drunk 1940’s Pete Townshend, Ira would come on stage so wasted he’d smash his mandolin to pieces in a rage – and then glue it back together later when he sobered up. His third wife shot him six times, four in the chest and two in the hand, because he tried to garrote her with a telephone wire. The book on his life, also called Satan is Real, quotes his third wife as saying “If the bastard don’t die, I’ll shoot him again!” Perhaps she should have, as he went on to marry a fourth time to a woman named Anne Young. Anne and Ira both died when he rammed into another vehicle on their way home from Kansas City. He was on his way back from a performance – and there was a warrant out for his arrest on a DUI. Ira was 41. His brother Charlie lived to be 83.
Satan is Real is a fascinating album, and not only because it has one of the most incredible covers in history, which was designed by Ira and is a real photograph taken in front of a 12-foot plywood devil while tires soaked in kerosene burn behind them. It’s because of the irony of its creation. I’m not religious, but the imagery and the musicianship of Satan is Real is incredible and it approaches evangelical Christianity in a down-to-earth, human way. It’s a genuinely beautiful document of two brothers’ intense faith – forever marred by the fact that one of those brothers was a devil himself.
Satan is Real is the most extreme example, but it’s not the only one: Ira and Charlie performed this balancing act for decades. It’s not a rare story in music history, but I struggle to think of a more powerful juxtaposition.
Go give it a listen – it’s on Spotify and it’s a wonderful Fall spin. I’m back to horror movies and games tomorrow, but today’s horror story just happens to be a true one. Satan is Real – he’s right there on the cover.
And for what it’s worth, when Ira and Charlie built that twelve-foot plywood devil at their local quarry it almost fell over and burned them both alive.
And if that’s not a metaphor, I don’t know what is.