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Book Review: Louvin’s ’Satan Is Real’ is dazzling tale

“Satan Is Real: The Ballad of The Louvin Brothers” (It Books), by Charlie Louvin with Benjamin Whitmer

I think I’ve already found my favorite book of 2012.

“Satan Is Real: The Ballad of The Louvin Brothers” is a delight. Charlie Louvin’s memoir of his time with his brother, Ira, and the tragic end to one of the most influential duos in the history of American music is like a Louvin Brothers song: simple and plain-spoken, yet powerful and resonant.

Louvin wrote the book with Benjamin Whitmer in the months before he died last year of pancreatic cancer at the age of 83. He pulls no punches. He kicks his (much larger) brother’s butt in the opening pages for disrespecting their mother, and doesn’t let up in a fast-paced read that’s pleasingly conversational.

Along the way, he details the way he and his brother developed their soaring harmony sound and the many faults of Ira, a philanderer and spiraling alcoholic who could be as nasty as he was brilliant. He also recounts the cruelty and love of their domineering sharecropper father and a tough childhood in Depression-era rural Alabama, the success of his six-decade marriage, and how he and his brother willed their way to success and a spot on their beloved Grand Ole Opry. And then how it sadly unraveled.

It’s sweet and saucy, spiced with the F-word and unflinching in its portrayal of the world of country music in the 1950s and ‘60s.

Louvin recounts finding dirt-poor teenager Johnny Cash outside an early gig and letting his future touring partner and friend in the show for free. He tells the likely reason behind why Elvis Presley never recorded a song by his favorite country group. He illustrates a warning against the excesses of fame with a story about George Jones, and takes the Opry and modern country music to task.

His portraits are sharply drawn and the book eventually reveals a subtle picture of the author, a survivor who lasted as long as he did because of a cleareyed toughness and an unwillingness to give up long past the point he probably should have.

Louvin experienced a career renaissance late in life, becoming a favorite name drop for hipsters, folkies and traditional country fans. Lovingly reproduced Louvin Brothers vinyl LPs like “Satan Is Real” and “Tragic Songs of Life” are currently among the best-selling records in Nashville, and the book’s cover, a reproduction of the delightfully campy “Satan” album cover, is designed to take advantage of that cachet.

“Satan Is Real” is a delightful coda to the legend of The Louvin Brothers — and the separate and no less interesting legend of Charlie Louvin.

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