Review Summary: much more than just a silly album cover
It's amazing that a duo as legendary and influential as The Louvin Brothers are now known most for a silly album cover. A masterpiece like Satan is Real
is relegated to the same "Worst Album Covers of All Time" lists with Ken's By Request Only
and Millie Jackson's Back to the ***
And though it is most certainly a tragedy it's sort of understandable. There's a goofy bucktoothed racist asian stereotype satan standing on a tire fire with two weird lookin' crackers mid-harmony dressed like Huey Lewis and the News' rhythm section standing in the foreground.
But there's a certain crazed ambitiousness apparent in the weird photo that goes unmentioned in those sh
itty lists. The Brothers made and painted the woodcut satan themselves and they stood in very close proximity to a raging fire to get the photo just right. In front of hell and the lord of darkness himself the Louvins sing a beautiful gospel tune. The lyrics to the tune might as well be "fu
ck you satan" but that would probably be too on the nose.
Just a couple years after the release of Satan is Real the brothers would split up, Charlie no longer able to put up with his brother Ira's drunken and violent ways, and in 1965 Ira died in a fiery automobile crash. The crash strongly resembled the brothers' favorite Roy Acuff song "Wreck on the Highway"--a song the brothers covered.
"There was whiskey and blood all together / Mixed with glass where they lay / Death played her hand in destruction / But I didn't hear nobody pray"
The genesis of Satan is Real is one of rebellion and hope. Growing tired of playing the secular songs and murder ballads that made the brothers famous, Ira and Charlie desired to play songs that would please their lord and with any luck heal their fractured relationship.
This lends the album a defiant streak that is most apparent in the more rambunctious songs like the title track--complete with mid-song fire and brimstone sermon--and the gospel blitzkrieg "There's a Higher Power". But shows up in the cryptic "Are You Afraid to Die" and "The River of Jordan" with its rising harmonies.
However the Louvins were always well attuned the tragedies of life. I mean they did release an album called The Tragic Songs of Life. Though the drunkard narrators of both "The Kneeling Drunkard's Plea" and "The Drunkard's Doom" triumph over their addictions the victory in both songs seems temporal at best. The Louvins knew that sin is only defeated in the grave.
Charlie Louvin died in 2011 a wise old man beloved by many musicians old and new. His 2006 self-titled comeback album featured duets with many admirers such as Jeff Tweedy, Bobby Bare, Will Oldham, Eef Barzelay, Elvis Costello, Kurt Wagner, and George Jones. His posthumous memoir Satan is Real: Ballad of the Louvin Brothers
told his and Ira's sometimes tragic and sometimes triumphant careers in show business. It's a beautiful book full of hard-won truths and the same can be said of the duos most famous album. Yes the one with the funky Charlie Chan looking satan on its cover.