November 16: The Louvin Brothers released Satan is Real in 1959

satan-is-real

The Louvin Brothers – Satan is Real

What is it about this album?
Why is it so important in the americana /country/gospel music canon?

Satan Is Real is a gospel album by American country music duo The Louvin Brothers.

Released November 16, 1959
Recorded August 8–10, 1958
Genre Country, Gospel
Length 31:54
Label Capitol
Producer Ken Nelson, John Johnson (Reissue)

The gospel/country duo Charlie and Ira Louvin was born and grew up in the Sand Mountain region of Alabama, they lived on a cotton farm south of the Appalachian Mountains, that’s where they developed their distinct harmony style in the deep Sacred Harp tradition of the Baptist church.

Ira Louvin died in a car wreck in 1965. Charlie Louvin died two years ago at 83 just a few months after publishing his story about The Louvin brothers.

In The recently published book, Satan is Real, the ballad of the Louvin Brothers, Charlie talks about their singing style.This is not a straight quote, but it goes something  like this:

…people who saw the Louvin Brothers perform were mystified by the experience. Ira was a full head taller than me, he played the mandolin like Bill Monroe and sang in an impossibly high, tense, quivering tenor. I(Charlie) strummed a guitar, grinned like a vaudevillian and handled the bottom register. But every so often, in the middle of a song, some hidden signal flashed and we switched places — with Ira swooping down from the heights, and me angling upward — and even the most careful listeners would lose track of which man was carrying the lead. This was more than close-harmony singing; each instance was an act of transubstantiation.

I could not find any live footage from Satan is real, but this clip of them singing, I don’t belive you’ve met my baby is a fine showcase for their intricate singing style:

“It baffled a lot of people,” Charlie Louvin explains in his fantastic memoir. “We could change in the middle of a word. Part of the reason we could do that was that we’d learned to have a good ear for other people’s voices when we sang Sacred Harp. But the other part is that we were brothers.”


Their mother taught them religious songs, and their father beat them so much, that the brothers used their singing to get away from the life on the cotton form.

“We were two determined little bastards. We were no good at quitting at all. Whether or not he meant to, I’d say that’s one of the greatest gifts Papa gave us.” – Charlie Louvin

There are much to say about their career, and we will in later posts, but today we are going to talk about and listen to the masterpiece, Satan is Real.

When you look at the album cover of Satan is Real, it’s an image that’s impossible to ignore. A giant, cartoon cut-out devil towers over a dark landscape of rocks and hellfire, while the Louvin Brothers, in their pure white suits stand arms out-stretched with a mixed look of horror and joy on their faces.

“That’s kind of the way that we was raised to believe the boogeyman looked like”
– Charlie Louvin

On the title track  Ira preaches about the temptations of Satan and the salvation that lies ahead for those that chose the right path. He sounds very much like a the brimstone preacher the cover depicts.

The songs on Satan is Real are about what self destruction will cost you and the need for salvation. It was a life that Ira Louvin knew very well. Stubborn to a fault, driven by anger, and fueled by alcohol, Ira infused the album with first-hand knowledge of the battle between good and evil.

It is sad to say, but I believe it was the “camp” cover that led to new interest in the album, it has been disussed at great length at various sites about best and, more often, the worst album covers. But when people started to listen to the record they discovered wonderful, spiritual songs sung with unbelievable skill and passion. It really touches people with it’s themes on damnation and forgiveness.

It very much deserves the praise it gets, it is a gospel milestone!

Allmusic.com:
 by Mark Deming

“While more than a few hipsters have found an ironic laugh in the album’s over-the-top imagery, one listen to the music confirms that the Louvin Brothers weren’t joking in any way, shape or form. Satan Is Real is an album of fierce, plain spoken sincerity in which the Louvins, who started their career singing gospel material, perform songs that deal with the high stakes of sin and redemption, in which Satan truly does have power to rival the Lord.

You don’t need to share the Louvin Brothers’ spiritual beliefs to be moved by the grace, beauty and lack of pretension of this music; Satan Is Real is music crafted by true believers sharing their faith, and its power goes beyond Christian doctrine into something at once deeply personal and truly universal, and the result is the Louvin Brothers’ masterpiece.”

Amen!

– Hallgeir

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