Autobiographies by famous or notable people we truly dislike, those we’ve been aware of for years only because the media or other people constantly refer to them and their ludicrous, or offensive, or attention-whoring behaviors, are most likely going to appeal almost exclusively to a core audience that the author is fully aware and knowledgeable of. By the same token, an autobiography by a famous or notable person almost universally well-liked and admired, with their own attendant fans and supportive audience, has the potential to completely re-shape one’s own personal pre-conceived understanding of what they had always accepted as the ‘one true image’. And that’s almost always bad.
At this writing, there are brand-new, heavily promoted autobiographies from ‘biggies’ like legendary record producer Clive Davis, legendary Oscar/Grammy/Emmy/Tony award winning Rita Moreno, ‘kinda legendary’ Cissy Houston, Whitney’s aunt, an HBO TV autobio from Beyonce, and others best not mentioning. The point is, an autobiography invites, even dares the readers to make our own final judgement of a person’s character, when they have willingly and voluntarily published a written account of their lives, as they themselves perceive it and choose to share such with the public. Most are self-serving and reveal nothing except someone’s capacity to talk endlessly about themselves.
But one need not be the least bit familiar with the music, nor listen to a single song by the Louvin Brothers, to fully appreciate Charlie Louvin’s autobiography. The title ‘Satan Is Real‘ was the name of a now infamous record album released in 1959, the cover of which is re-printed on this book’s cover, restyled to resemble a 50’s ragged edge pulp paperback, and has been pretty much exploited enough already, by various trade books and websites that have sought out and re-printed the more bizarre LP covers of the 20th century, of which this certainly qualifies. It was conceived by Charlie’s brother, Ira, absent of any ironic or humorous intent, which of course is exactly what has inspired the cheeky notoriety it’s gained through the years. None of that will be found here, and it won’t be missed.
Charlie’s style of communication is so affecting and honest, it’s difficult to imagine his co-writer, Benjamin Whitmer, having anything more to do with assisting him than capturing his specific language and meaning to arrange on paper. Chapters are wonderfully short, written in a conversational tone and varying from humorous recollections, memories of tragedies and deaths of loved ones, to attitudes about religion, marriage, fighting in the Korean war; small moments that obviously retained larger, lasting personal significance for it’s author. There are so many wonderful paragraphs and stories, it’s difficult to refrain from quoting more in this context. Charlie lays out his story in a casual fashion, straightforward and at times obscenely blunt, that entertains and keeps your attention, as most good storytellers do. A prime example, from very early in the book, prefaces Ira’s notorious self-destructive nature – his drinking, womanizing, and short temper that spared no one. As recalled in an incident when the brothers take time out of their touring schedule to visit their mother, who couldn’t refrain from trying to ‘save’ her son:
(Ira told mama), ‘Aw, leave me alone. I ain’t hurting nobody.’ ‘You’re hurting yourself,’ she said. ‘That’s who you’re hurting.’ ‘Yeah, well I don’t remember asking you’, he said, and tried to light a cigarette. He was so drunk he couldn’t even get his lighter to make a flame. ‘Goddamn it,’ he said.
‘That whiskey don’t do you no good,’ she said. ‘It don’t do nobody no good,’ she said.
Finally he got his lighter to work, and he poked his mouth at the lighter to light the cigarette, but he missed.
‘Your father’s in Knoxville,’ she continued. ‘I sure am glad he’s not here right now to see this.’
Ira threw the still unlit cigarette on the ground. ‘Will you shut up, bitch?’
I can guarantee you the fucking fight was on then. I beat the shit out of him right there in the front yard. He was lucky it was just words, too. If he’d have touched her, I’d still be in prison… Then I stuck him in the car and we drove away.
“I know you ain’t asleep,” I said to him once we got on the highway. He was curled up on his side of the car, holding his busted face.
“I’m only gonna tell you this once. If you talk to her like that again, I’ll beat the shit out of you again. I’ll do it every time. You can lump it or try to change it, but that’s the way it is.”
‘Oh hell, I didn’t mean nothing by it,’ he slurred. ‘That was just that old whiskey talking.’
“That ain’t no excuse,” I said. “Nobody forced you to drink that stuff. And you’d better not ever do it again.’ Then I stopped talking and just drove, fuming.
Although their songs were heavily influenced by their Baptist faith and warned against sin, Ira was an alcoholic of near-inevitable self-destruction, with a sense of harmony and musical expression that the young Charlie was in awe of; but Ira’s instinctively rebellious nature and anti-authoritarian ethos, to their father’s regularly enraged consternation, was something Charlie could never grasp yet did nothing in diminishing his own loyalty to, and admiration for Ira. But not even Charlie could reign in his brother’s self-destructive ways, fueled by alcohol and a violent temperament, and even though Charlie outlived him for over four decades, ‘Satan Is Real’ is just as much Ira’s story as Charlie’s.
Charlie (1927–2011) and Ira Loudermilk (1924–1965) were one of many country music brother duos that achieved a measure of popularity on southern radio stations during the 40’s and 50’s, when performing music live on regular radio broadcasts was a standard form of entertainment, and selling records was more often than not a secondary source of income that only the most popular of these acts could make any substantial profit from. They adopted the name Louvin Brothers in 1940 as they began their career, first in gospel music and hymns they learned as boys growing up in church.
Like most sibling acts, they had a close harmony that helped popularize a genre of country music that had a much wider audience than the non-secular songs they grew up singing, and playing, with Charlie on the guitar and Ira on the mandolin, and they adapted to this ‘country’ style as much out of necessity as any artistic preference. They and other brother acts (Bill and Earl Bolick, better known as the ‘Blue Sky Boys’; followed by Ralph and Carter Stanley, Jim and Jesse McReynolds, the Delmore Brothers, and Bill and Charlie Monroe) were in constant competition for radio spots, most especially the ‘holy grail’ of them all, the Grand Ole Opry, which was the pinnacle of success for these struggling artists.
In these earliest days, the life of a music performer involved touring constantly and playing at every church, school or barn gathering along the way, and the luckier ones were signed to fledgling record companies that recorded crudely-produced acetates to press on a few hundred discs for radio airplay and sales to the small buying public, all while having to drive thousands of empty miles of unpaved roads, in their own ragged vehicles for all-night stretches, to play to crowds of many times less than 20 people, only to have to turn around and drive those same hundreds of miles back to play one or two songs on a live radio broadcast 7 or 8 hours later, and so it was for these early Country, Swing and Bluegrass groups for well over two decades. They were the most influential inspirations for the young Everly Brothers and Simon & Garfunkel when they began their recording careers years later, achieving a level of success far beyond any that these earlier artists could ever imagine.
When performing and drinking, Ira would sometimes become angry enough on stage to smash his mandolin. He was married four times; his third wife Faye shot him four times in the chest and twice in the hand after he allegedly beat her; they both survived. As of 1963, Charlie was making enough money that he was able to start a solo career, and Ira also went on his own.
Ira died on June 20, 1965 at the age of 41. He and his fourth wife, Anne, were struck head-on in their car by a drunken driver on the way home from a performance in Kansas City, and both were killed instantaneously. At the time, a warrant for Ira’s arrest had been issued on a DUI charge.
When Charlie died in 2011, only a few short months after this book’s publication, the Louvin Brothers had inspired and were revered by artists such as Kris Kristofferson, Emmylou Harris, Johnny Cash, Ricky Skaggs, Vince Gill and Allison Krauss (Charlie includes a chapter about meeting another young up-and-comer who had idolized them, Elvis Presley).
What most autobiographies lack is a sincere, honest voice that aims only to tell a story that doesn’t enhance ego, or attempts to scandalize and shock the reader with scintillating revelations for the singular purpose of selling books.
This book, by an early 20th-century farm boy with a minimal education who, with his older brother, became a country singer/musician and performer in the days when musicians were as poverty-stricken as the dirt-poor country folk and farmers who listened to their music, is as refreshingly stark and engaging as the most involving true-life success story.
Charlie Louvin doesn’t aim to impress, or craft any kind of legacy other than the one he’s left behind, for better or worse. What a concept.