Tragic Songs of Life 

The Louvin Brothers' Harmonious Music and Discordant Lives

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Charlie Louvin had a long, successful solo career in country music after the Louvin Brothers broke up in 1963, but his autobiography wisely focuses on the years when he and his older brother Ira were one of the most influential country duets of all time. Satan Is Real: The Ballad of the Louvin Brothers is really as much Ira's life story as it is Charlie's; like the intertwining harmonies on their (still stunning) records, the Louvin boys' lives were inescapably fused together, filled with tension, resolution, and near-biblical tumult.

Growing up on a cotton farm in Alabama during the Great Depression, Ira and Charlie Loudermilk were taught old English folk songs by their mother. Their iron-fisted father forced them to sing in front of company—at first, the bashful brothers would only do so from underneath the bed. But they had a gift, and they had the desire, and Ira and Charlie spent several years after World War II struggling to garner an audience for their peculiar blend of lighthearted country and severe, fire-and-brimstone gospel. Satan Is Real, which Charlie co-wrote with novelist Benjamin Whitmer, is an effortlessly conversational read—and a wholly transparent look at the brothers' early career. Charlie doesn't try to sand out any rough edges in order to make himself look good, and he certainly doesn't do so for his older brother.

Ira was both the artistic motor for the Louvin Brothers and the dead weight that Charlie was forced to tug around. Ira was an alcoholic hothead with a fragile ego who would just as easily pick a fight with Charlie as sing with him—indeed, the Louvins were constantly either doing one or the other. But their magnificent music influenced everyone from the Everly Brothers to Gram Parsons, and charting the course of their rise to fame is both fascinating and comfortingly familiar.

Satan Is Real is a handsome book, augmented by song lyrics and plenty of pertinent pictures. That's the famous 1959 record cover on the book's jacket, too—the kitschy, iconic image of a giant plywood devil looming over the white-suited brothers. Ira was killed in 1965 (by a drunken driver, of all things) and Charlie died last year before the book saw publication, but those eerily perfect harmonies live on. You'll want to have 'em playing as you make your way through Louvin's tough, poignant book.

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