Obviously the cover of Ira and Charlie Louvin’s 1959 country gospel classic holds a bold kitsch value that threatens to eclipse the considerable quality of the album’s contents. For some, the sight of the white-suited Louvin’s standing in front of an ultra-cheap set of burning rocks (actually well hidden tires) and a wooden devil possibly inspired by a can of Underwood ham spread is a source of endless mirth, and I won’t deny that my first encounter with the LP inspired a long gawk and a hearty giggle at what I chalked up as the accidental wrongheadedness of the sleeve. But these days (and for a long while previous) my interest in The Louvin Brothers has been not as the punch line of a joke at their expense but instead as one of the finest acts country music ever produced. Between 1955-’61 the pair landed ten top twenty hits on the country chart, performing secular material necessitated by their membership in the Grand Ole Opry. But they never turned their back on the gospel music that instigated their career, and it’s the duo’s dedication to their church-inspired close-harmony style that has provided them with such continued relevance and historical import, for The Louvin’s provide the lasting link between eternally worthy old-time brother groups like The Blue Sky Boys and The Delmore Brothers and the style’s subsequent manifestation into the rock ‘n’ roll era through the tales of teen tribulations harmonized by Phil and Don Everly. While TRAGIC SONGS OF LIFE is The Louvin’s best album of secular material, SATAN IS REAL is by a nose their finest religious work (edging out THE FAMILY WHO PRAYS), and an inspection of all of their Capitol material is essential to understanding exactly what transpired in country music between the death of Hank Williams and the emergence of George Jones, Buck Owens and Merle Haggard. While it would be ill-advised hyperbole to call SATAN IS REAL a concept album, it can be accurately described as a thematic one. This theme could be diminished by the dubious as rather basic, but it is there and it is strongly felt; the opening title track is cast as a sermon by Ira that makes no bones about his belief in the existence of Satan and the evil wrought by his power. Ira Louvin states his religious conviction so strongly that it becomes a take it or leave it proposition. Countless thousands have snickered at SATAN IS REAL’s cover photo, but upon hearing its first cut it becomes boldly clear that The Louvin Brothers’ religious belief is no laughing matter. From there the record provides a sequential pathway through a variety of modes; first celebrations of Christian faith (“There’s a Higher Power”, “The Christian Life”, “The River of Jordan”), followed by the innate fallibility of humankind and the power of salvation (“The Kneeling Drunkard’s Plea”, “Are You Afraid To Die”, “He Can Be Found”) and concluded with the inevitability of death and the crossroads of the afterlife (“Dying from Home, and Lost”, “The Drunkard’s Doom”, “Satan’s Jeweled Crown”, “The Angel’s Rejoiced Last Night”, “I’m Ready to Go Home”). A dozen tracks in just a little over thirty minutes that methodically relate The Louvin’s intentions and with an all important musical vibrancy. “There’s a Higher Power” has a trace of country-swing in its britches and features some tough guitar licks, “The River of Jordan” can honestly be said to border on rocking, and “He Can Be Found” essays the Louvin's influence on The Everly Brothers in a nutshell. But the finesse and verve of Charlie and Ira’s close-harmony is on display throughout, and SATAN IS REAL is a fine listen for non-believers and the devout alike. The album sits at a crossroads of old-time tradition and subsequent developments in country music; “The Kneeling Drunkard’s Plea”, a Carter Family cover, looks to the past while “The Christian Life” points to the future through its inclusion on The Byrds’ crucial SWEETHEARTS OF THE RODEO. Ira Louvin was by all reports an ornery cuss whose difficult disposition eventually broke up the duo in the early ‘60s. He died in a car crash in ’65, but Charlie was a modest commercial success for the next decade and had a nice 21st century resurgence with a pair of fine albums for the unimpeachable Tompkins Square label. I consider myself lucky to have seen him play a strong, relaxed set at the Bonnaroo Festival a few years back, for he died in January of last year. The Louvin Brothers’ music lives on however, and SATAN IS REAL is one of their finest works.
Townes Van Zandt was one of the true bittersweet troubadours of American Music. The woeful obscurity that afflicted him during a life too short and rife with trouble (dead of a heart attack shy of his 53rd birthday in 1997 after many years of drug and alcohol addiction) is hard to reconcile with the nude beauty of his music; The Velvet Underground’s now legendary lack of popularity while extant was basically tied to their being so defiantly ahead of their time, Big Star’s elusive sales figures were directly related to how they harkened back and revitalized the tidy appeal of ‘60s pop-rock in an era that greatly preferred excess, and Don Van Vliet was a kingpin of cult mainly because he was such a blatant weird-meat, but Townes Van Zandt was just a powerful singer and brilliant songwriter whose early recordings should’ve been, if not huge, than certainly substantially bigger than they actually were at the time of their release. From ’68-’72 Van Zandt recorded six albums that slowly solidified his reputation as a true rough diamond in the oft-problematic category of singer-songwriter, and it can be speculated that the guy’s natural blend of folk and country was perhaps a little bit urbane for the C&W hardliners of the time and maybe too tough for a folk-set that was preparing to turn the corner into the mellow hell of James Taylor etc. But at worst this should’ve somewhat limited Van Zandt’s appeal, not kneecapped it outright; it’s far easier to surmise that lack of promotion from the small Poppy label led to his misfortune as a musician’s musician. As time marched forward and more people learned about him, the records’ general lack of availability became a problem. Even after Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard’s smash hit cover of “Poncho and Lefty” greatly increased his profile, the LPs were still pretty scarce in the racks, at least in my neck of the woods. By the point of indie imprint Tomato’s reissuing of certain Poppy titles in ’89, it seemed he was destined to be cursed with eternal cult status, joining names like Tim Hardin, Fred Neil, Guy Clark and Mickey Newbury in a club of exemplary writers given unfair commercial shakes as performers of their own material. Van Zandt’s first two records, ‘68’s FOR THE SAKE OF THE SONG and the following year’s OUR MOTHER THE MOUNTAIN are fine examples of a songwriting talent of uncommon maturity brandishing an artistry compromised to differing extents by Jack Clement’s often ill-advised production ideas. While both albums ultimately reveal traits and angles that make them essential to understanding the formative creativity of their maker, the first true masterpiece in Van Zandt’s discography is his self-titled third LP, also released in ’69 and recorded in Nashville at the storied studio of Owen Bradley, a figure simultaneously renowned and derided as an architect of the Countrypolitan sound. But like the Beau Brummels’ proto-country-rock classic BRADLEY’S BARN, TOWNES VAN ZANDT wisely lacks any of the strings, choirs and syrupy chart gloss that made Bradley’s name. The LP does feature four re-recordings of songs from his debut, with each a startling improvement upon its original, particularly opener “For the Sake of the Song”; where the first version of the tune simply can’t escape Clement’s intention to mold it into something similar to a hard luck Harry Nilsson hanging out in a dusty border town and waxing poetic over a gorgeous if perplexing conchita, the second try cozies up to near perfection by stripping away any straining attempts at marketability, instead smartly relying upon the spare authority of voice and guitar. When the accompaniment does assert itself it possesses a subtle, timeless quality that aids the song by never overwhelming it. This is a hard act to follow, but thankfully Van Zandt has broad range inspired by a diversity of influence, with two of his biggest inspirations being Hank Williams and Lightnin’ Hopkins. His occasional welcome detours into blues or gospel material would really flourish on later albums, but TOWNES VAN ZANDT leaves nothing to be desired in terms of sonic breadth. “Columbine” completely nails an aura of pretty mid-tempo finger-picking without falling prey to the inconsequential lightness that’s been plaguing folkies since they started spinning introspective. In this he’s proved a key influence on alt-country practitioners and freak-folk denizens alike, showing how to take a turn into the beatific without floating off into the distance like so much dandelion fluff. But he can also hit an extended note of existential despair with grace that seems effortless (“Waiting Around to Die”) and when he does add bluesy touches (the slide guitar on “Lungs”, the gnawing harmonica on “Waiting...”) it resonates with sincere appreciation of the style and not a quick study in genre grafting. There are of course songs that under different circumstances could’ve translated into commercial hits; the gorgeous fragility of “None But the Rain” (replete with non-crap flute), the expert country stroll through a no-nonsense ode to a wounded heart that is “Don’t Take It Too Bad” and the shrewdly implicit Dylanisms of “Fair Thee Well, Miss Carousel” for three instances. But when regarding the discography of the man it’s best not to dwell for very long over what might’ve been. That line of thinking positions this vital artist as a failure or at least something close to it, and one listen to TOWNES VAN ZANDT (or any of his prime material for that matter) will easily prove the fallacy of that notion. By extension, I don’t think it’s really appropriate to compare him to chart successes like Outlaw Country cornerstones Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson. Instead, it’s seems best to place his oeuvre within the context of albums from other underappreciated and stylistically similar writer-players of the period like Newbury’s “American Trilogy” (comprised of the titles LOOKS LIKE RAIN, ‘FRISCO MABEL JOY and HEAVEN HELP THE CHILD), Clark’s OLD NO. 1 and TEXAS COOKIN’, the Flatlanders’ MORE A LEGEND THAN A BAND, Jerry Jeff Walker’s ¡VIVA TERLINGUA! and Terry Allen’s LUBBOCK (ON EVERYTHING). What, you haven’t heard those records? Well then, best get cracking. But please don’t forget Townes Van Zandt, friend. His collected output is a jewel in the wealth of this country’s disparate song form, and to miss it is to do your ears a great disservice.