Author: Martin, George

Satan is Real

Among the gifts Santa brought this year was a fascinating book, “Satan Is Real, the Ballad of the Louvin Brothers” by Charlie Louvin with Benjamin Whitmer. Charlie and his brother, Ira, were the Louvin Brothers, a stage name shortened from their real family name of Loudermilk, which they thought was not easily remembered.

They started out as a gospel act, modeled on Charlie and Bill Monroe, worked around on little rural radio stations, as so many country artists did, eventually made their dream real by becoming members of the Grand Ole Opry, and slowly fell apart and eventually broke up because of Ira’s alcoholism. They wrote a bunch of classic country songs like "I Wish You Knew," and "Cash on the Barrelhead," that have become bluegrass standards.

Ira was killed (ironically) by a drunk driver in 1965 while driving home from a performance with his fourth wife. Charlie was an Opry solo act until he died in 2011, just after his book was finished.

Charlie doesn’t seem to have been the sort of chap who would sit down at a computer and tap out a book. It reads like he and Whitmer sat around with a tape recorder and put down every story Ira could remember. If you are bashful about language, you might want to avoid this book. I’m pretty easygoing about such things, and an occasional “f-word” doesn’t bother me all that much, but even I was brought up short when Charlie refers to one of his womanizing uncle’s female companions as a “young c----.” ??But you can see where it comes from. The Loudermilks had a hard life, trying to make a living on a small cotton farm at a place called Sand Mountain, Alabama. Charlie and Ira trapped and sold wild rabbits for spending money, they worked long hours in the cotton fields, and Ira, in particular, got beaten by his father a lot. Charlie speculates that the constant fear of his father contributed to Ira’s personal demons. He grew up to be a womanizer and an angry drunk who occasionally smashed his mandolin on stage during performances.

In their early teens they idolized Roy Acuff, and walked every Saturday night to a neighbor’s house to hear the Opry on the radio. I’m going to copy a few paragraphs here to illustrate just how poor this area was. Remember all the interviews of musicians you have heard that started out, “Papa had this battery powered radio...”? Not only didn’t the Loudermilks have a radio, none of their neighbors did either:

“ soon as we got done in the cotton fields [and bear in mind this is a Saturday] Ira and I had run down to the Watkins’ house and joined all the other farmers on the porch to listen to the Grand Ole Opry. There was about twenty-five of us gathered in the dark of that porch and then twenty-five more in the yellow light of Watkins’ living room, leaning into his old radio.

“Everybody knew what artists was going to be on at what time, and when their favorites came on, they stubbed out their cigarettes and moved inside to hear them, while the folks who were done listening to their favorites got up and came outside. Everybody on the porch was just as quiet as those inside. The radio was a little thing, not much of a speaker on it, and you had to really listen to hear what was going on. We did, and as soon as we heard Acuff being announced, it was our turn to go inside. We sat down on the rug, just as close to the radio as we could get.”

There are a great many wonderful stories in this book. At a schoolhouse gig in Arkansas, Charlie sees a young boy dressed in overalls and suntanned from a summer in the cotton fields. He realizes the boy has no money for the show so he lets him in free, and only many years later discovers the boy was Johnny Cash.

And gossip about Opry stars: [Little Jimmie] “Dickens was mean, though. If he fought you he could slip up between your legs and de-ball you before you knew what happened. He was a dangerous fighting man because he was so low down. He whipped Webb Pierce once. I’ll never forget that. Webb weighed more than two hundred pounds and Dickens beat him up bad.”

I’ll end with Charlie’s insight into the death of Hank Williams: “I’ve talked to the guy who was driving when Hank died in the back seat of that Cadillac on the way to Canton, Ohio. Hank hadn’t slept in days and he told the driver ‘I’ve got to have some sleep, man, I can’t sleep. Let’s go through Knoxville.’ So they pulled through Knoxville, and he called that doctor up and told him, ‘I have to have some sleep. I just have to.’ I don’t know what he was on but he couldn’t go to sleep without help.

“Sure enough, that doctor gave him a shot and it worked. Hank wanted some sleep and he’s still sleeping.”

It’s a great read; highly recommended.

Posted:  1/10/2013

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