The archetype that governs the life stories of successful musicians, country and bluegrass legends in particular, involves one or more of the following elements: violent father; music career to escape a life picking cotton or mining coal; early mentor/huckster who undeservedly lists himself as co-author of songs to share in royalties. There have been so many variations on this theme that a fresh take would seem impossible.
Yet Charlie Louvin managed it. Louvin was a natural storyteller with access to a large grab bag of verbal licks. And he was comfortable deploying an especially colorful vocabulary that tended toward a salty shade of blue.
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Louvin died in 2011 at 83, just two months after finishing this book with Benjamin Whitmer. It is a supremely readable account of his life and career with his older brother Ira.
In the 1950s and '60s, the Louvin Brothers were perhaps the most popular country duo in America. Known first for their gospel singing on live radio shows that aired before dawn around the South, they recorded hits performing "tragic songs of life" — original songs written by Ira, and adaptations of murder ballads from 19th-century England taught to them by their mother: "In the Pines," "Mary of the Wild Moor," "Knoxville Girl."
There were obstacles at every step. The most insurmountable was Ira himself, a gifted singer and songwriter with a maladaptive personality going back to childhood on the family farm in Sand Mountain, Ala. Charlie traces his older brother's demons to the especially savage beatings and whippings delivered by their father. Ira's instinct was to provoke more of them.
By the time they were performing together, and long before Hendrix and the Who, Ira would routinely smash his mandolin onstage. This was not show biz; it was 200-proof rage.
He had four marriages. The first three ended in divorce. Of Ira's first wife, Charlie Louvin writes lines that could easily serve as lyrics: "Their marriage was like a candle in a winter window. On fire today and turned to ice tomorrow."
Ira Louvin's third wife, Faye, was his true peer when it came to out-of-control alcoholism. We read with horror about an attempted strangulation, gunshot wounds, trips to the hospital, jail and a mental institution. And then they were reunited.
Beyond Ira's self-destructiveness, the brothers faced the usual bad breaks — including the draft — that conspired against overnight success. There's an almost vaudevillian riff where the two brothers audition repeatedly at the Grand Ole Opry for the same man, who keeps turning them away. After 11 years of this, they finally learn that the man had no authority to hire them, yet he sadistically neglected to mention this fact.
The single element that allowed the duo to overcome all odds was their unrelenting ambition. For sure they had talent, and they worked hard at improving, but the ingredient to their success — and this is perhaps the most essential part of the archetype — is that they simply wanted it more than the next person. And with good reason.
"It meant not picking cotton for the rest of our lives. It meant survival," Charlie Louvin writes.
Louvin shares revealing details about life on the road. His last year in school was ninth grade. The 10-hour car rides from one show to the next were fueled by little pills he called Old Yellers. His experience in Korea left him decidedly anti-war. There are encounters with Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley, both of whom, in their youth, admired the Louvin Brothers.
The Louvin Brothers had dissolved before the car crash in 1965 that killed Ira. Charlie Louvin took pride that his solo career earned him more hit records than his brother act ever did. But he had some lingering misgivings.
"Ira was always convinced that he was at least eighty percent of the act, and I was only the other piddlin' twenty percent," he writes. "And he wasn't alone in thinking that. I know Chet Atkins and others have said the same. When Ira was living, everybody talked about his tenor and his songwriting. … But I think I've proved that I was at least fifty percent of our act."
It may be that Ira Louvin was the more talented songwriter. Charlie was by far the person you'd rather hang out with after the show.
Dean Olsher, author of "From Square One: A Meditation, with Digressions, on Crosswords," is a musical omnivore, although he admits Cajun music and reggae are acquired tastes.
'Satan Is Real'
By Charlie Louvin with Benjamin Whitmer
Igniter, 320 pages, $22.99