Like many others I came to the music of the Louvin Brothers by way of Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris in the 1970s. The Louvins were the last of the pre-Rock’n’Roll brother bands and when Charlie Louvin died last week one of the last living links was gone. There’s a fine obituary in yesterday’s Guardian written by Tony Russell. Brother acts enjoyed great popularity in American music from the 1930s onward and the Louvins came at the end of a long line of close harmony groups that included the Blue Sky Boys, Johnnie and Jack, the Delmore Brothers, and the Stanley Brothers. Only Ralph Stanley survives.
What made the Louvins compelling was the world they described in song – a Southern Gothic universe where the struggle to lead a righteous life was constantly undermined by the temptations of Satan. Alcohol abuse, adultery, and gambling thrived in the poor Southern white sub-culture and the prospect of economic ruin and family breakdown was all too real. This strand in their work climaxed with the 1959 album, Satan is Real that despite a somewhat camp sleeve design (a standard feature in any anthology of cheesy album artwork) was saturated in the language of sin, death, damnation and redemption delivered with terrifying authenticity. Impassioned vocals and spoken monologues invoke the desperate fear of sliding into eternal darkness. Charlie’s brother, Ira was a troubled soul who wrestled with the demon drink and was subject to sudden and violent rages – they were singing from personal experience. The brothers themselves were responsible for the sleeve design – the rocks came from a nearby quarry and the flames were created by burning discarded auto tyres. Ira designed the 12 foot high figure of the devil and had it cut from plywood and painted.
The other side of the Louvins was a rare ability to write and record the sweetest of ballads delivered via heartfelt harmonies that transcended any note of sentimentality. The ballads proved more popular with later interpreters of their music and had a defining influence on the sound of the Everly Brothers when they piloted close harmony singing into the Rock’n’Roll era with enormous success. The Louvins finally cracked under the strain of coping with Ira’s erratic behaviour and broke up in 1963. Ira and Charlie pursued solo careers until Ira died in a car accident two years later in 1965. Charlie continued to perform and lived long enough to become a country music institution in the afterglow of renewed interest in the music he made with his brother. He maintained an impressive rate of productivity releasing six new albums in the last four years of his long and distinguished life.
Louvin Brothers Top Five
The Angels Rejoiced Last Night
When I Stop Dreaming
Stuck Up Blues
If I Could Only Win Your Love
The Christian Life