Labor Of Louvin
The late Charlie Louvin and co-writer Benjamin Whitmer document the artist's experience in country music's most tragic brotherhood.
In the memoir Satan is Real: The Ballad of The Louvin Brothers, the late Charlie Louvin briefly laments the dearth of museum-worthy items celebrating him and his older brother, Ira.
“After forty-five years, there ain’t much left except what’s in my head.”
To the benefit of the new book’s emotional impact, though, the country music legend possessed an incredibly vivid memory. He was able to relate the personal, sometimes painful aspects of his and his brother’s careers, speaking in his own, unforgettable voice.
Before losing his battle with pancreatic cancer in early 2011, Charlie spent the better part of the prior year sharing his stories with cowriter Benjamin Whitmer — about growing up under a slave driver of a father, dreaming of and finally succeeding at playing the Grand Ole Opry, and dealing with his brother’s infamous volatility.
Whitmer cobbled together the comments from those interviews to fashion a biography of Charlie and Ira Louvin that reads more like an oral history. Hearing Charlie tell all those stories instilled in Whitmer a strong sense of responsibility to stay true to his subject’s voice and style — salty language, colloquialisms, and all.
“I took a lot of time organizing and finding ways to make it a narrative while trying to keep his voice as strong as possible,” Whitmer said during a phone interview from his Denver home. “Once I heard [Charlie] talk, it was obvious that his voice would be the heart of the book.”
Charlie and Ira made gospel and secular records from the late ’40s into the early ’60s and are responsible for such gems as “When I Stop Dreaming,” “Cash on the Barrel Head,” and “My Baby’s Gone.” On top of substantive lyrics and rich melodies, their tunes are notable for the then-unique style of “close” vocal harmonies delivered by the brothers. Most big country stars at the time knew and coveted The Louvin Brothers’ songs, so readers will see “side characters” like Elvis Presley, Roy Acuff, and Johnny Cash enter the narrative.
However, the relationship between Charlie and Ira remains front and center, from their big-dreamin’ childhood to their increasingly rocky adult years. The book doesn’t go on for very much longer following Ira’s 1965 fatal car crash, even though Charlie’s solo career ended up charting more hits than The Louvin Brothers did.
Whitmer says that what’s in the 300-page book doesn’t begin to cover everything he heard from Charlie. “There were plenty of times that Charlie would tell me, ‘That story I just told, you aren’t allowed to print.’ There are stories that I’m not allowed to repeat to anyone — which are wonderful.”
But Satan Is Real, named after one of The Louvin Brothers’ more evocative gospel albums, doesn’t feel incomplete in the slightest. It’s a fast, focused read whose subjects seem so alive that you often forget they’re gone. And that’s the way Charlie would have wanted it.