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louvin brothers: tragic songs of life (1956)
The story of the Louvin Brothers is so strung out between good and evil, joy and terror, harmony and strife that it feels like the work of one of those southern gothic writers, from Edgar Allan Poe to William Faulkner to Cormac McCarthy.
The brothers, born Ira and Charlie Loudermilk, were certainly children of the Deep South, having been born in 1924 and 1927 respectively and grown up in the Baptist religion in the Appalachian mountains of Alabama, a time and place touched by hardship and where Jesus and the Devil seemed to walk side by side.
The 2004 BBC documentary In Search Of The Wrong-Eyed Jesus, which featured alt.country singer Jim White as its narrator, explored an American South seemingly little changed, with its junkyards, churches, bars and overfilled prisons. As White also points out, this is a place where 'stories was everything and everything was stories'.
Ira and Charlie embraced all the contradictions of their background, both in their music and their lives. Ira, the elder brother, played mandolin, sang in high sweet tenor, wrote most of the songs and was frustrated that he'd never persued his dream of becoming a preacher (he'd have been a charasmatic one too, based on his spoken word section in the title track to Satan Is Real). He was also a mean drunk, whose third wife shot him six times after he tried to strangle her with a telephone cord. When they toured with Elvis, Ira attacked him calling his music 'n****r trash'.
Not even surviving being shot cured Ira's ways and his behaviour caused the brothers to go their separate ways in 1963 (their last single was called Why Must You Throw Dirt In My Face). Ira died alongside his fourth wife in a car crash two years later - both he and the driver of the other car were drunk.
In contrast, Charlie played guitar, sang in a lower register and lived a long and seemingly contented life before dying at the age of 83 in January this year. He left behind a widow, Betty, after 61 years of marriage.
The brothers started out singing gospel, soon adopted the stage name of the Louvin Brothers and increasingly began to draw on the influence of other brother-based close harmony country acts, notably the Blue Sky Boys, the Monroe brothers and the Delmore Brothers. But so closely entwined were their vocals, Ira usually singing higher but both brothers modulating their voices with great skill, that their songs can still raise the hairs on the back of your neck today.
Despite being sometimes misinterpreted as a novelty act nowadays, largely thanks to the frequent appearance of their 1959 LP Satan Is Real in those collections of amusing album covers that float around the internet, the Louvins Brothers' influence runs deep, touching the music of artists ranging from The Byrds to Elvis Costello to The Handsome Family to The Everly Brothers to The Lemonheads to Johnny Cash over the years.
Tragic Songs Of Life was their second album (their first for Capitol) and a step away from gospel towards more secular songs, ranging from hokey but heartfelt dustbowl sentimentalism to lurid murder ballads.
Opener Kentucky is the perfect showcase for those incredible harmonies, with Paul Yandell adding some delicate flourishes on guitar and the tone wistful rather than anything darker.
A cover of A.P. Carter's I'll Be All Smiles Tonight captures the forced happiness of a discarded lover attending the wedding of their former beau and side one settles down to its theme of thwarted love.
Let Her Go, God Bless Her ups the pace but keeps wrongfooting you with a lyric that starts out musing about a sweetheart's hair in church, before planning a night of carousing if the right horse comes in at the races and then suddenly dropping in the verse 'Sometimes I live in the country/ Sometimes I live in the town/ But sometimes I take up the notion/ To jump in the river and drown', all sung in a confusingly upbeat manner.
What Is Home Without Love is another traditional song, this time about a rich man who marries a woman who only wants him for his wealth. Walking past a humble cottage one day, he spots a husband, wife and baby happily embracing together and is reduced to tears. Corny, of course, but those beautiful heartfelt harmonies somehow manage to transcend cynicism.
Anyway, if you thought that sounded cornball just wait until you hear A Tiny Broken Heart, the brothers' first songwriting credit on the album and a schmaltzy tale of a 7-year-old who discovers that his young sweetheart on the neighbouring farm has to move away because of the family's money troubles. He begs his father to sell his Christmas presents so he can give her family the money. It's like a particularly tragic episode of Little House on the Prairie, so it's just a relief to get to the end of the song without anyone going blind or dying in a threshing machine.
Side one finishes on a high - or rather a wonderful low - with In The Pines, another traditional tune and one that the Louvins probably heard from Bill Monroe. A dark and chilly song, the harmonies on the yodelling sections after the chorus are stunning, giving their interpretation a haunting quality without overcooking it. It also draws a direct if unlikely line between the Louvins and Nirvana, who covered the song on their Unplugged album in the Where Did You Sleep Last Night incarnation made famous by Lead Belly.
Side two starts with Alabama, another declaration of devotion to the south and the only other original Louvins composition on the album. Probably the most joyful song on Tragic Songs Of Life, it gives no hint of the remarkable run of murder, suicide, depression and betrayal that is to follow.
Katie Dear is a Blue Sky Boys song based around the melodrama of two young lovers who kill themselves with a golden dagger not because they are told by her parents that they can't marry but rather that they are too afraid to ask them.
My Brother's Will crams a remarkable amount of tragedy into three minutes, starting with the death of the protagonist's brother from a stray hunter's bullet when out walking in the country. Promising to marry the dying brother's sweetheart, we then discover that this the same woman who broke his heart years ago. It then turns out that Sally has also betrayed the now dead brother by marrying someone else. It's like a soap opera in stetsons.
Things turn really dark on Knoxville Girl, another traditional song that has roots going back to medieval England (when it was known as Wessex Girl). Willie takes a walk with his girl during which he beats her death with a stick for some unspecified transgression before dragging her body around by the hair and dumping it in a river. The violence is so unflinching (when she begs for mercy, he simply beats her more) that it brings to mind Jim Thompson's The Killer Inside Me, which had come out 4 years earlier.
Take The News To Mother is a tale of a terrified soldier preparing to die on the battlefields of France, and sounds rather plaintive and sweet after Knoxville Girl.
Mary Of The Wild Moor is another traditional tale that had made its way over from England, being passed on by mouth from generation to generation, telling of another family tragedy as a father fails to hear his daughter crying at his door over the wind only to discover her child clasped in the dead woman's arms in the morning. If that wasn't all gloomy enough, the father soon dies of shock, the child isn't far behind and no one ever lives in the house again as it turns into a collapsing monument to poor Mary.
Tragic Songs Of Life certainly lives up to its title but Ira and Charlie's rich, pure voices still retain their power 55 years later. Pretty much everything they recorded in their 8-year recording career together is worth listening to and this is no exception, raising the bar for harmony singing that the Everly Brothers or Simon & Garfunkel more than matched in terms of financial success with but rarely bettered when it came to pure drama.
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