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The Louvin Brothers - Satan is Real / Handpicked Songs 1955-62

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Artist: The Louvin Brothers

Album: Satan is Real / Handpicked Songs 1955-62

Label: Light in the Attic

Review date: Nov. 9, 2011

What makes Satan is Real a classic? It starts with the album cover, which is, depending on who you talk to, either an iconic or bizarre image (for my money, it’s the former). Charlie and Ira Louvin are smiling, arms outstretched like they’re in mid-song, in front of a 16-foot plywood devil, bright red and holding a pitchfork, that they created from the base of a toy train set that they borrowed from Charlie’s son. There are several fires burning in the background, which they lit using tires and kerosense in the abandoned rock quarry where they shot the cover photo (one can scarcely imagine today’s insurers and label executives letting an artist under contract stand that close to an open tire fire). Ira Louvin reportedly came up with the idea himself, and no matter what you think of it, it’s effective. One reason vinyl aficionados have sought out Satan is Real at a greater rate than the rest of the Louvin Brothers’ work is to own the cover art.

That’s scarcely the entire appeal, obviously. Satan is Real also contained some of the best songs that the Louvin Brothers ever wrote. Whether gospel or secular, the Louvins’ could get pretty dark — narrators often tried to make their way in the world with cheating spouses, lost loves, or unconquerable personal weaknesses. That last item is the theme of the title song on Satan is Real: If there’s a God, and he set out a righteous path for you, then there’s also got a to be a devil trying to tempt you to stray. Both are present in “The Christian Life,” a classic about living right while your buddies are out carousing.

The Louvins’ explorations of these themes on Satan is Real is often credited both to their strict Baptist upbringing in southern Alabama, as well as their own personal struggles around the time that the album was recorded. Ira Louvin had three tempestuous marriages that ended in divorce, and battled alcoholism for most of his life. (He died in a car crash in 1965, two years after the Louvin Brothers split up and started recording separately.) For the Louvin Brothers, that title wasn’t just cosmological: They were genuinely wrestling with questions of sin and redemption, and songs like “Are You Afraid to Die” reflected the fear that despite your best intentions, you won’t straighten your life out in time. The traditional gospel songs included here that are notably lighter in tone: two Hazel Houser songs (“The River of Jordan” and “I’m Ready to Go Home”) and “He Can Be Found,” a traditional celebration of everyday miracles. (Their cover of the Carter Family’s “Kneeling Drunkard’s Plea” is a better fit with their originals).

The vinyl reissue of Satan is Real contains the original material and a nice set of liner notes by Jessica Hundley that summarizes the Louvin Brothers’ career and the background of Satan is Real. There’s also a CD reissue that includes Handpicked Songs 1955-1962, a collection of Louvin Brothers’ songs selected by a group of songwriters, including Kris Kristofferson, Mark Lanegan, Will Oldham and Beck. Some of the choices are typical greatest-hits material (“Great Atomic Power” and “When I Stop Dreaming,” for example), but there are also a few deeper cuts, including Oldham’s selection, “Alabama” (“Alabama, you’re all that I love and all that I long for, so I’m coming today.”) The diversity of the panel selecting the songs reflects the resurgence of interest in the Louvin Brothers’ work in the last few years, which was largely the result of a couple of recent albums and tours by Charlie Louvin (who, sadly, passed away in January). It may not be the most comprehensive overview of the Louvin Brothers’ work, but everyone provides a short note explaining their selection, some recounting touching stories about meeting or working with Charlie.

Satan is Real is not an obscure reissue, and given the Louvin Brothers’ place in country music history, it’s surprising it was ever out of print. But it’s good to see it back on shelves — and not just for the album cover.

By Tom Zimpleman

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