by Chris Randle
Cancer took Charlie Louvin on Wednesday morning, and this is going to be an awkward eulogy, because my first exposure to his music came later that day. I’d only known the Louvin Brothers as an internet meme: the 1959 LP above is a staple of weirdest/silliest/kitschiest album-cover lists online. Growing up with middle-class comforts and no vestige of religion in downtown Toronto, one of those kids who says they like every genre “except rap and country,” the very notion of Satan’s realness was more absurd than his plywood caricature.
Here’s something the listmakers usually don’t tell you: Ira Louvin designed that cover himself. He and Charlie burnt kerosene-soaked tires in an old rock quarry to set the scene, nearly incinerating themselves in the process. Between the high forehead, cavernous brows and sinister grins, it’s hard not to read perverse excitement in his expression. Ira (on the left, born Loudermilk) was the older brother, the most gifted, the primary songwriter. He had been drawn to the Pentecostal ministry once, and every seedy bar where he and his sibling played country songs must have felt like spiritual torture.
Ira became a violent alcoholic. He smashed numerous mandolins (!) during shows, cheated on all four of his wives and received several bullets in his back from the third after trying to strangle her with a telephone cord. (“If the son of a bitch don’t die, I’ll shoot him again.”) As the brothers’ hot young opener for one ’50s tour sang hymns in admiration backstage, his soused hero called him a “white nigger” playing suspiciously danceable “trash.” Then Ira tried to strangle Elvis Presley. I remember my friend Maggie, a big fan, telling me about the Louvin Brothers in a bar once; describing the eldest’s death via drunk driver while evading his own DUI warrant, she sounded both awed and appalled.
That was in 1965. Charlie Louvin, the relatively mild-mannered half of the group, had already gotten fed up and ended their partnership two years earlier. He led a respectable solo career for a while, but the tunes became less memorable without his demon brother. I don’t mean that in the fatuous sense of romanticized torment – they needed each other for technical reasons. Chained together through so many of their wounded yet pious gospel songs, the Louvins’ trademark tenor harmonies keen past Biblical doctrine to the pain and sorrow it tries to explain. When they sang “that word ‘broadminded’ is spelled S-I-N,” holding the last letter just until it hurts, they were referring to illicit dancing. You would think it was the fall from Eden.
You might also think it’s a little strange for a lifelong nonbeliever to suddenly find this music so affecting (and I’m far from the only one). If an atheist or agnostic listens to two righteous hellions outlining what a miserable sinner he is and hits “repeat,” is it theological masochism? Well, I don’t fuck with Christian fundamentalism, but it does seem to give certain acolytes a deep understanding of tragedy. Browsing through Louvin joints over the past couple of days, I became particularly obsessed with one of their secular compositions. “When I Stop Dreaming” ends on these lines: “You can teach the flowers to bloom in the snow / You may take a pebble and teach it to grow / You can teach all the raindrops to return to the clouds / But you can’t teach my heart to forget.”
The heartbreak is magnified until it scrapes the edge of irony, like some Appalachian inversion of Stephin Merrit. I wouldn’t be surprised if the siblings intended that effect. Charlie Louvin apparently had a healthy sense of humour himself, leaning towards the macabre, as country often does. In later years he presided over a ramshackle Louvin Brothers Museum, right next to gory photos from Ira’s death scene. He didn’t release any music for 25 years at one point, but the 2003 tribute album Livin’, Lovin’, Losin’ renewed interest in the duo and presaged a series of new recording sessions. I ran out to buy 2008′s Murder Ballads and Disaster Songs LP yesterday. It features his rendition of “Wreck on the Highway,” and the cover is his smiling, avuncular face.
Curious juxtapositions aside, I don’t think Charlie was making light of Ira Louvin’s death. There are recent interviews where a gentle question about his brother reduces him to sobs. His New York Times obituary closes with this quote: “When it comes time for the harmonies to come in, I will move to my left because my brother and I always used to use one microphone. Even today, I will move over to the left to give the harmony room, knowing in my mind that there’s no harmony standing on my right.” Of all my privileges, the most precious one is that I’ve never had to watch a dear soul destroy themselves, before yearning: Get beside me, Satan.