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Radio Bristol Book Club: Satan Is Real: The Ballad of the Louvin Brothers

Welcome to Radio Bristol Book Club where readers from BCM and the Bristol Public Library come together each month to celebrate and explore books inspired by our region’s rich Appalachian cultural and musical heritage! We invite you to read along and then listen to Radio Bristol on the fourth Thursday of each month at 12:00 noon when we dig deep into the themes and questions raised by the books, learn more about the authors, and celebrate the joys of being a bookworm!

June’s book, Satan is Real: The Ballad of the Louvin Brothers, is a memoir written by Charlie Louvin with Benjamin Whitmer and with a moving foreword by Kris Kristofferson. This is the incredible story of a musical career started by two brothers, Charlie and Ira, who were born in the Appalachian mountains of Alabama. The brothers learned their harmony-style singing through the “Sacred Harp” tradition of the Baptist Church. They both started out singing gospel music, but added secular music into their repertoire later in their career.

The cover of the book is iconic because it is also the cover art from an album they released in 1959 of the same name. It features the figure of Satan made of plywood and paint and created by the brothers themselves; the Louvins are singing in the foreground with fire raging all around them. This cover is metaphor, reflecting some of the things the brothers must have really felt in their lives – Ira dealt with several demons during his life including alcohol and depression, and while Charlie surely fought with some of his own demons too, he was considered a “God-fearing and church-going” man. One fine example of what this book has to offer along those lines is the story about the attempted murder of Ira; his wife shot him six times after he tried to strangle her with a telephone cord, and he survived. Ira’s wife told the police “if that sonofabitch isn’t dead, I’ll shoot him again.” Music, mayhem, mandolins, and a very talented brother duo – what’s not to like?

The book cover shows a tall grinning Satan figure in the background, surrounded by fire, with the two Louvin Brothers in white suits and black ties singing in the foreground.

Charlie Louvin was born July 7, 1927 in Henagar, Alabama. As a teen, he began to sing with his brother Ira as part of a local radio program in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The brothers sang a mix of traditional and gospel music in a style that they had learned while in their church choir, blending rich harmonies together. After Charlie served for a brief time in World War II, he and Ira moved from Knoxville to Memphis working as postal clerks during the day and making musical appearances in the evenings. Once again, Charlie left to serve in the military, this time in the Korean War, and the brothers then relocated to Birmingham, Alabama.

The Louvins were gospel musicians, but they were later convinced by one of their sponsors that “you can’t sell tobacco with gospel music,” and they began to add secular music into their sets. They made appearances at the Grand Ole Opry and became official members in 1955. The Louvins released several singles, and over 20 of these reached the country music charts. Their harmonic style served to influence future artists such as Emmylou Harris (whom Charlie later played alongside in September 2010) and The Byrds. The brothers split up in 1963, and Ira died of a car crash in 1965. In 2001 the Louvin Brothers were inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Charlie Louvin worked on rebuilding his career in the early 2000s working on classic songs, a new song that was a tribute to Ira, and gospel numbers. Charlie continued to make music and appearances until he underwent surgery for pancreatic cancer. Louvin died from complications six months after surgery in his Wartrace, Tennessee, home on January 26, 2011. He was 83 years old.

 Charlie Louvin sings at a mic labeled WSM/Grand Ole Opry at center stage with other musicians and equipment around and behind him. He is wearing grey pants, a white shirt and Stetson, and a blue blazer.
Charlie Louvin performing on the Grand Ole Opry stage. Image from Wikimedia Commons, author: Cliff

Please make plans to join us on Thursday, June 24 at 12:00pm for the Radio Bristol Book Club readers’ reactions to Satan is Real, which will be followed with an interview with Brett Steele, Charlie Louvin’s former manager! You can find us on the dial at 100.1 FM, streaming live on Radio Bristol, or via the Radio Bristol app. The book is available at the Bristol Public Library so be sure to pick up a copy and read it ahead of time. The librarians will be happy to help you find the book. We look forward to sharing our discussion on this fascinating memoir. And if you have thoughts or questions about this book that you would like to share with our readers – and our listeners – you can email info@birthplaceofcountrymusic.org (Subject line: Radio Bristol Book Club), and your book insights might appear on air with us!

Looking ahead: Our book pick for July is Sharyn McCrumb’s Appalachia by Sharyn McCrumb; we’ll be discussing it on Thursday, July 22. Check out our full list of 2021 Radio Bristol Book Club picks here, where you can also listen to archived shows!

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