The album artwork for The Louvin Brothers’ peculiar 1959 masterpiece Satan is Real says it all, or at the very least it says about as much as any single image could capture of the utter madness of the most catastrophic family band in history. Afore the worst cardboard cut-out facsimile of Satan ever to strike fear into the hearts of absolutely f—king no one, amid weird rubble with the sort of flames that might just about cause fire-damage to a model town on a dry day, stand two men in white suits. The look upon their faces is utterly perplexing.
On the one hand, they appear manic and deranged, but they are also sartorially smart and seem to be gesturing in some cognizant way that they are indeed aware that they are in the presence of the anti-Christ. Is it a scowl, a look of afeared surprise, or a mocking cackle upon their expressive but bewildering mugs? Given the madness of their life story, it would seem that the image below encapsulates a vignette of all their creative pursuits—what started out as a bold indictment of faith, ended up as, ‘Please just click the camera and be done with it!’
Thus, we are left with an expression that came and went in the moment it happened, fixed on the artwork forevermore as a confounding insight into another darn creative folly. The intent of the album cover is lost to the sands of time. They no doubt had agreed upon a fixed look five minutes earlier, but my money is on Ira suddenly firing a turd into the punchbowl of their plan and an argument-bargument ensuing that left only one image available to Capitol Records. Ira Louvin was often doing that.
If they were signed to Capitol Records, played with the esteemed likes of Chet Atkins, pioneered the vocal technique of close harmonies, and heavily influenced country heroes like Bill Monroe, you might ask yourself, what was so catastrophic about these two God-fearing suited brothers? Well, theirs is much more a tale of what could’ve been rather than what was.
You see, the duo’s musical output was heavily influenced by their own Baptist upbringing. Charlie Louvin ardently believed in music’s power to extoll the virtues of the good Lord, and Ira Louvin, well, Ira firmly believed in drinking, womanising, and smashing the gaff up for good time’s sake. This is perhaps why their biblical back catalogue focuses more on warding off the devil than it does celebrate walking in the grace of divinity. In fact, you often feel that the songs are not designed to preach a message of faith and brotherhood far and wide but rather to send a portent to one half of the duo.
However, Ira was too busy transmitting chaos to flick his switch to receive Charlie’s messages. For instance, away from his life on the stage, he was busy being shot by his third wife four times in the chest and twice in his cherished guitar playing hands while trying to strangle her with a telephone cord, to be bothering with the subtext of the songs they were crafting, and how they might relate to his wildly sinful ways. Naturally, he survived.
All the while, Charlie was busy pressing his trousers fresh for the morning stroll, then offering a ‘howdy’ and good tidings to those he met along the way. Charlie was a good man and true. And almost every night, he would have to take to the stage with a drunkard who would get so enraged at not being able to tune his banjo properly while intoxicated that he would smash it up midperformance and have Charlie glue the ramshackle instrument back together the next day.
Essentially, it was almost like Keith Richards and Cliff Richard formed a duo. Together they would inform each other’s worldviews. The saintly Charlie would frequently be tested by his brother in every which way to the point that he often lost his patience. While Ira would sing, “This life that I’ve lived so sinful and evil / Drinking and running around / All the things that I do, for the love of the devil / I know my reward is Satan’s jewel crown,” seemingly self-aware of his destructive nature.
Together, on stage, when the riot of the contrasting worlds settled with the hush of the expectant crowd, they would almost tesselate into one single harmonious heavenly being… for about two to three minutes. This golden wisp was a force to behold, and it is testimony to its power that amid the subterranean circles of those that still recall seeing them play, the tales of these moments get more talk time than the tempestuous ocean of madness that you had to wade through to arrive at them.
On record, this is true too. There are flawless flashes where the Louvin Brothers align and ram home a message we know from many other family bands: There is just something unknowably special about siblings harmonising. It was this force and the odd flourishes that they filled their work with that led to them becoming one of the most influential acts of their era.
However, even saintly folks have their limit. One day, Ira had pushed his luck a little too far and Charlie had had enough. He walked out in 1963 and decided no matter how many heavenly moments that the pair had together it was never worth the hell of the most part and they both went their separate ways—estranged by character and bound by blood.