When you see the album Satan is Real, it’s an image that’s impossible to ignore. A giant, cartoonish, cross-eyed red devil towers over a dark landscape of rocks and blazing hellfire, while the Louvin Brothers, in pure white suits stand arms out-stretched with anxious looks of horror on their faces.
“I think when you first look at the album cover it almost seems… I hate to say this. I don’t mean no disrespect to Charlie and Ira, but it almost seems like a comedy record. You know, can this really be for real? And then you listen to it, and it’s the most genuine piece of country music maybe ever laid down,” Matt Sullivan, founder of Light in the Attic Records, said.
The Seattle-based label specializes primarily in reissues of little known sixties punk, soul and folk music. But Sullivan found the beautiful close harmony singing of the Louvin Brothers too special to pass up. Which led to his label reissuing two classic albums by the country duo – Tragic Songs of Life, and Satan is Real in special deluxe packaging, along with a new compilation of Louvin Brothers favorites, Handpicked Songs 1955-1962.
Satan’s Jeweled Crown
The Louvin Brothers got their start recording gospel music, found success with secular hillbilly hits, and then continued to alternate between the two genres. When they released Satan is Real in 1959 most country gospel was pleasant, reassuring songs or sentimental tales of sorrow. Charlie and Ira chose a different path, reaching back to the Pentecostal imagery of their upbringing for a cold, stark stare directly into the abyss and beyond.
For the album cover they wanted to create their own vision of damnation, and started with a four by eight sheet of plywood split up the middle, as Charlie Louvin recalled in an interview conducted before his death in January this year. “It made the devil sixteen feet tall. My brother made horns for him and a pitchfork. And that’s kind of the way that we was raised to believe the boogeyman looked like.”
Setting up their homemade Satan in a Goodlettsville, Tennessee rock quarry, the brothers surrounded it with burning, kerosene-soaked tires. A tableau that became even more menacing when it started to rain on the hot limestone.
“If water hit them while they was real hot from those fires, they’d blow up,” Charlie said. “Rocks as big as your fist would fly way up in the sky, and you didn’t know exactly where they were coming down at, but we got through it.”
Tragic Songs of Life
At its core the songs on Satan is Real are about cost of self-destruction and the longing for salvation. It was a conflict that Ira Louvin knew all too well. Stubborn to a fault, possessed of a mercurial temper, and driven by alcohol, Ira infused the record with first-hand knowledge of the battle for a man’s soul. Laying down the battle lines on the title track as Ira preaches a sermon on the destruction of lives for those that succumb to the temptations of Satan.
For Ira, it was a very real battle, and one that his brother saw him lose again and again. “He could preach for you,” Charlie said. “He knew the book. He might not have lived by the book, but – a lot of us don’t – but he absolutely knew the book.”
Ira continued to struggle with his personal demons, leading to the break-up of the brother’s musical partnership in 1963. He died in car accident just two years later. Charlie went on to a successful solo career, even while the Louvins’ influential recordings faded into obscurity.
Ironically, it would be the camp appeal of Satan is Real’s cover that sparked a revival for the Louvins’ music during the late 1990s. The artwork began to appear in books and on the Internet in various discussions of best and worst album covers, but when people listened to the record, they discovered something far greater than a plywood Satan.
That was the case for label head Matt Sullivan. “The vocal harmonies are outstanding and the musicianship and of course the songwriting, and it’s just such a beautiful piece of music,” he said. “But also it’s not a joke record. It’s a strange piece of music, but really there’s been nothing like it since.”
“We ended up meeting Charlie in Manchester, Tennessee at a Waffle House a few years back, and had a great meeting with him,” Sullivan said. “We really wanted to give Satan is Real the respect that it deserves, not just the sound but also to the packaging, the liner notes, getting the artist involved, and really telling the story behind the record because it’s one of those albums people have talked about before, but I don’t think people have really sunk their teeth into as much as the record deserves.”
Satan is Real endures not for it strange cover, but because stripped of its fire and brimstone imagery, it resonates with the universal themes of human failing and redemption.