Friday, August 31, 2012

A ride to the dark side with the Louvin Brothers

(Charlie and Ira Louvin)

We were sitting around a picnic table at Stanley’s Campgrounds outside of Ocean Isle Beach, N.C., drinking beer and George Dickel, playing poker, and telling tales when Richard walked over from a neighboring trailer.

It was decades ago, but I’ll never forget that night. I’m glad I wrote the details down in a journal.

He was dressed well although his shirttail hung out. A Lucky Strike dangled from his lips, and an unruly lock of hair nearly covered his right eye. He asked me about my guitar, an even then fairly beat-up Yamaha acoustic, which was leaning against a tree. We took turns playing a couple tunes, but then I stepped back and let him take over.

Music filled that summer night for the next couple of hours. I think Richard knew every song Jimmie Rogers and Hank Williams ever sang. You’re not going to believe this, but when he got to I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry and the part about the whippoorwill that “sounds too blue to fly” I swear I heard a whippoorwill cry out from the woods surrounding us.

Richard was 32, from Danville, Va., and on the run from the law for writing bad checks. “Hell, I just want to be free like everybody else,” he told us. “Up there you’re not. Here you are.”

I’ve been thinking about Richard ever since I read Charlie Louvin’s new autobiography Satan Is Real: The Ballad of the Louvin Brothers (itbooks/HarperCollins, 2012). Completed two months before the Grand Ole Opry legend died, it’s a book that takes you to the dark side, to the same world of those Louvin Brothers songs of the 1950s, songs of jealousy and murder, star-crossed lovers, loneliness and regret.

Here’s an example, a few lyrics from their classic, Knoxville Girl. As an unfaithful young woman begs for mercy from her jealous lover:

I only beat her more.
Until the ground around me
Within her blood did flow.

Heavy stuff! So are the tales Charlie Louvin weaves, particularly about his alcoholic older brother Ira, the duo’s mandolin player who ironically died in 1965 as the result of an automobile collision with a drunken driver. At one point, Ira was drinking “a fifth of whiskey a day, with beer on top of it.” In one incident, his third wife Faye shot him six times after he tried to strangle her with a telephone cord. He survived and a few days later, while still on a stretcher, visited the funeral home where the bodies of country stars Patsy Cline, Cowboy Copas and Hawkshaw Hawkins lay. They’d just died in a plane crash.

Long before Jimi Hendrix set his guitar on fire on stage, Ira would smash his mandolin into splinters in front of shocked audiences. It wasn’t an act. He was usually drunk and couldn’t tolerate an instrument if it got out of tune.

“He felt betrayed,” Charlie writes. “It was as if he thought they were doing it to him on purpose.”

You’d think Charlie and Ira’s encounter with Hank Williams at the Louisiana Hayride in Shreveport would have been enough to discourage too much boozing. “We stepped off the curb, and I saw a man lying by the sidewalk, dead drunk, puke running about five feet from his head down to the gutter.” The man was Hank Williams. “It was tragic to see. A man with the ability, talent, and future like the one he had, to see him waste it on the bottle.”

Satan Is Real—the title comes from one of the Louvin Brothers’ gospel albums—is more than a story of debauchery, however. The brothers grew up on a hardscrabble cotton farm in Depression-era Alabama, sons of a stern father who beat them “black and blue” for the slightest infraction and a music-loving mother who taught them old English ballads like Mary of the Wild Moor. Those ballads led to the boys’ music career, but they were hardly overnight successes. Their acceptance into the Opry came after many years of singing and many failed auditions.

Even before Ira died, Charlie had staked out his own solo career. He became a staple at the Opry, and I got to see him perform back in the early 1990s. In his book, he doesn’t have a whole lot of good things to say about the post-Roy Acuff Opry. “The longer you’ve been at the Opry, the worse they treat you.”

As for today’s music: “Country music ain’t country music now. The so-called country artists now get it as close to pop and rock as they can and still call it country.”

Likely he wasn’t talking about Jamie Johnson, Steve Earle, Alison Krauss. It’s still out there, just harder to find.

Who knows? Maybe Richard changed his name and became the toast of Nashville. Not likely, but it would make a great country song, wouldn’t it?

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