But Tragic Songs of Life, originally released in 1956, remains their greatest achievement. "Alabama" and "Kentucky" (and the brilliant electric picking of Paul Yandell) are bursting with love and home and human connection, the very things that will make the grim losses of the remaining cuts feel so tragic. The album practically drips with death, as well as other less viscous losses. It features the definitive versions of several traditional tunes that have now become country and bluegrass standards, most notably "In the Pines" and the horrifying, guilt-ridden first-person murder ballad "Knoxville Girl" (covered this year by both BR5-49 and the Lemonheads). Even in the pair's secular recordings, God's judgment seems to loom as a terrifying end.
So it's no surprise that the brothers never completely abandoned the sacred. Another new reissue, Satan Is Real, is nearly as strong as Tragic and is filled with the spirit; it is not quite so harsh as much of their earlier gospel. The joyous testifying on "There's a Higher Power" and "The River of Jordan" are examples of the jubilant Southern gospel tradition that, today, is fading away. The album's famous cover -- the brothers in white Sunday suits, hands outstretched, Charlie smiling and Ira looking more wracked, both standing in front of a twelve-foot plywood Satan and a fiery, rocky Hell that Ira made himself -- is a tableau that might be viewed as camp today. But one listen to the peace in the Louvins' harmonies on the nearly transcendental "He Can Be Found" or the tremendous relief in their "Satan's Jeweled Crown" reminds us that these boys weren't kidding around. Whether you take the sermon that Ira, a frustrated preacher, delivers on the title track ("It's sweet to know that God is real ... but Satan is real too, and Hell is a real place") to be literal, as he certainly intended, or to be a metaphor for human hubris and its resultant tragedies, you still know he meant every sanctified syllable.
The brothers must have had that sense of tragedy in their very bones, especially Ira. Charlie, tired of his brother's frequent fits of alcoholic fury (which over the years had routinely cost them gigs, pushed him to physically attack Elvis, and resulted in many smashed bones and mandolins, as well as the three bullets his third wife put in his back), left Ira in an ugly 1963 split. He went on to have a fairly successful solo career throughout the Sixties, as well as a few hit duets with Melba Montgomery in the early Seventies. Ira, along with his fourth wife, died in a Missouri auto accident in 1965, a tragically predictable end for a man who had spent his life torn between the Word and the bottle.
Sadly, stories like Ira and Charlie Louvin's are played out every day. During the duo's too brief career, the Louvins sang about those tragic stories as intensely, passionately, and desperately as people feel them, all the while searching for peace. More than anything else, it's that universal quest for harmony in a disharmonious world that shone through when the Louvin Brothers joined their voices in song. If we want to know the full worth of their art, we have to fight past the reflexive postmodern desire to roll our eyes and hear fervency as some big joke; we have to listen as earnestly as they sang. We have to remember that, like each of us at the end of the day, the Louvin Brothers were not kidding around.