Satan Is Real/Handpicked Songs 1955–1962 by The Louvin Brothers

As they say, you can’t accurately judge a book—or, for that matter, an album—by its cover. If you could, The Louvin Brothers’ 1959 country-gospel collection, Satan Is Real, would contain music as laughably artificial as the plywood Prince of Darkness leering from its cult-classic cover art. That’s hardly the case, as the recent CD and vinyl reissue of the album makes clear for a new generation that may know little about the hugely influential harmony duo of Ira and Charlie Louvin. 

Similarly, a new book bearing the same title and striking image is a package that’s not easy to sum up from an initial impression. It’s hardly a religious-oriented text; behind its faux-vintage dime-store-novel-style jacket is the no-holds-barred history of the Louvins’ family and career (and a sometimes startling look inside the music industry and the Opry of yore) as told by sole surviving duo member Charlie Louvin just prior to his death in early 2011. The unsentimental book is both engaging and unsettling, with humorous anecdotes offsetting the often-troubling saga of the duo’s hard-won and short-lived success. 

At first glance, the outrageous cover image appears to be a parody of over-the-top evangelical zeal, but it’s no joke. The concept was born of Ira Louvin’s Baptist upbringing, as well as the deep inner conflict between his Christian faith and his profession, which allowed temptation to burn as freely as the album cover’s very real, kerosene-fueled flames. Only by reading Satan Is Real’s surprisingly gritty account of the duo’s rise and fall—precipitated by Ira’s alcohol abuse and violent temper—does one fully comprehend the complex contradictions behind the still-vital gospel music on the duo’s Satan Is Real album. While such sordid detail does allow for insight into some of the disc’s themes of sin and struggle, it can’t diminish the passion and purity of the Alabama-born brothers’ performances.

Ira’s innate gift for preaching is evident on the title track, which sandwiches a sermonette between choruses both heartfelt and cautionary. Among the darker topics of spiritual danger and earthly tragedy are the celebratory “The River of Jordan” and the rockabilly-guitar-fortified “There’s a Higher Power,” which stand as examples of country gospel at its most fervent and rousing. 

The package contains a second disc (not available on iTunes)—a collection of prime Louvin Brothers tracks selected by recording artists both country and non, affirming the duo’s wide-ranging influence. While it duplicates many tracks on available Louvins best-of collections, it offers lesser-known gems including the uplifting “I See a Bridge,” easily as spiritually potent as any track on Satan.

By mixing secular material with choice nonsecular cuts, the album effectively completes the picture of the sibling duo, for whom singing gospel was as natural as singing anything at all.

The now-infamous album cover may fail to convince onlookers of its title’s dead-serious assertion, but the enduring music on Satan Is Real still flickers with the fire of true conviction.

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