On surface, The Louvin Brothers’ recipe of God-bothering country music is the ultimate hard sell for the modern music fan. Don’t run off screaming just yet, though. This excellent double CD package contains material from a bygone era (1955 –1962), way before country mutated into outsized-hat sporting ridiculousness that would break out in a rash if it were to be hauled too far beyond the point where the pavement ends. As for religion, anyone familiar with the life and times of, for example, Johnny Cash can tell that the soul-shaking stuff of sin and salvation is just as elemental for music with country roots as it is for the inherently cooler vintage blues. The Louvin Brothers evoke the soul-tormenting divide between booze-splattered Saturday night carousing and sweaty, shaking remorse at the Sunday morning church service better than just about anyone.
Born into a large family in rural Alabama, the Louvin Brothers – Ira (1924 - 1965) and Charlie (1927 – 2011) Loudermilk – grew up on a combination of working the soil, communal sing-a-longs and a generous dollop of damnation-fearing Baptism. All three ingredients are an audible presence on these tracks. The backbreaking labour is evident in the uncluttered sparseness of their music, a cross between the mandolin-picking breeziness of Bluegrass and the storytelling traditions of American folk song that’s as unlikely to indulge in unnecessary movements as someone working the fields under a merciless sun. The Loudermilk family’s taste for singing is easily detected in Ira and Charlie Louvin’s incredible close harmonies: if the brothers sound like they’d been singing together forever by the time these songs were recorded, it’s because they had been.
As for Hellfire-stoking religion, Satan Is Real packs ample evidence. Both the famously clumsy cover art (the brothers perched on some infernal BBQ, Beelzebub himself pointing his poker triumphantly in the background) and the church-set spoken word homily at the centre of the title track might carry a distinct whiff of cheese at first. However, Ira’s life-long penchant for boozing, and the flashes of quick temper which led to the end of the partnership in 1962 mean that these sermons on sin and Satan are driven by a real anguish. Whether you believe in Heaven, Hades or any other supernatural phenomena, you can practically smell the sulphurous fumes at the core of the album’s troubled, God-fearing laments. The result is a deeply affecting work that’s enough to convert the staunchest of atheists, if only for the duration of the album.
As a compilation, Handpicked Songs doesn’t quite pack the thematic punch of Satan Is Real. But that’s where the criticisms end. A veritable feast of timeless country classics, the selection ranges from the lovelorn (the heart-shattering
‘When I Stop Dreaming’, the Louvins practically weeping through their harmonies) to the nostalgic (the breezy ‘Alabama’) and, in the 24 carat classic ‘Cash on the Barrelhead’, the humorous. The pick of the bunch has to be ‘Knoxville Girl’, a terrifying murder ballad (which must have taught Nick Cave a thing or two) disguised as a light-hearted waltz.