Hive Five: How the Louvin Brothers Channeled the Devil
Louvin Brothers

Ia and Charlie Louvin, circa 1958. Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Although ’50s country stars the Louvin Brothers ostensibly titled their most famous album Satan Is Real to warn people about the demonic influence of the fallen one, it turns out that the older brother, Ira Louvin, had more than a touch of the demon in him. How demonic? Lets just say he’s not afraid of a gun, Elvis or worried about being “politically correct” even when in the presence of rockabilly royality. We caught up with Benjamin Whitmer, who co-wrote Charlie Louvin’s autobiography – also titled Satan Is Real, naturally – to talk about some of the legendary stories that confirmed that Satan certainly might’ve had a finger in their career.

1. The song “Satan Is Real”

“At the time Ira wrote it, he was proving the same thing, but not in the same way he wrote the song,” Whitmer says. “It’s probably the most famous song because of the album cover, with the two guys in the white suits and the plywood Satan behind them. They didn’t sing about the love of Jesus and God, they sang about how if you don’t believe, you’re going to hell and you’re going to burn there. This was one of Ira’s recitations — he would do this preacher-like recitation in the middle of his songs. He was known for it — it was known back in his home in Sand Mountain that he should have been a preacher, and perhaps because he chose the separate calling of music that it put the devil in him. He couldn’t do what he was meant to do, so he became this drinker, fighter, wife-abuser, and all of the other things that he became.”

2. As kids, Charlie and Ira bred their dad’s prize coonhound with the ugliest bulldog in the barn

“Their father was not the nicest guy on earth,” Whitmer explains. “He’d beat the hell out of them for different things. He was also a great coon hunter, known over Alabama for great coon hounds. He had one he really wanted to breed, put it up in the hayloft in the barn, Ira and Charlie as kids go up there, find the ugliest bulldog they can find, start pushing him up the ladder, and him and the coonhound lock up. Charlie was with the father when the litter was born, they’re all bulldogs. He says, ‘Charlie, go get me a sack.’ He puts them in the sack, and then he says, ‘Charlie, go put these over the fence post.’ Charlie knows what this means — he means take them over to the fence post, bang the sack against the pole, and then drop them in a hole. Charlie doesn’t have the heart to do it, though — so he does a much more merciful thing and uses his rabbit-hunting .22 bullets and shoots each one.

3. Ira once called Elvis a “white n—–,” which ruined their chances of getting The King to record one of their song

“Once they took off, Ira would take any way he could to sabotage their career. He was excellent at it,” Whitmer laughs. “They were touring with Elvis, and this was the tour when Elvis took off. Before this tour, nobody knew who Elvis was. After the tour, there was nobody hotter. They were trying to get Elvis that exposure, and they had them tour with all these other acts like the Louvin Brothers, who were as big as anybody in Nashville at the time. One night after the show, Elvis comes backstage, and Ira’s been drinking, of course. Elvis sits down at the piano and starts playing an old gospel song and says, ‘This is the stuff I really love!’ And Ira says, ‘Well, you damn white n—-, if you love this stuff, why are you doing that trash out there?’ Elvis took it in stride, and there was no fight — rumors afterward were that there was a fistfight, but that didn’t happen. It did get back to Colonel Tom Parker, and after that, even though they were Elvis, and Elvis’ mother, favorite duo, he never recorded one of their songs and never did anything else with them. Charlie thinks that probably cost them two or three million dollars in their career.”

4. Ira practically invented smashing your instruments onstage

“He was a precursor to Kurt Cobain or Pete Townsend,” Whitmer explains. “He wasn’t trying to show off, though. He’d get onstage, and the thing about mandolins is they have eight strings, and only four sounds. So they’re really hard to keep in tune. When that happened, Ira’d get drunk and smash the hell out of it, stomp on it, and storm off the stage. That’d leave Charlie and the guitar player to play the act by themselves. And later on each night, you’d see Ira back there with a dustpan and a broom getting up every piece of the mandolin, and three months later, you’d see the mandolin again and you couldn’t see the crack in it.

5. Oh, sure, he also tried to strange his third wife with a telephone cord, so she shot him

Pretty much every one of these stories makes Whitmer laugh. “He was at his house, and drinking with Roy Acuff, the country singer, his third wife Fay, her brother Smiley Wilson, and a steel guitar player out of Nashville named Shy Jackson. Ira and his wife are having an argument, and they were trying to be good hosts, so they took it to the bedroom. And before you know it, Ira’s trying to strangle her with the telephone cord. So she reaches under the pillow and pulls out the little .22 he slept with. And she shoots him six times. When she’s doing the police report and telling them what happens, she says, ‘And if the son of a bitch don’t die, I’ll shoot him again.’”

Satan Is Real: The Ballad of the Louvin Brothers is out now on Igniter Books.

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