Wednesday, January 18, 2012

INTERVIEW: Author, Benjamin Whitmer (Satan Is Real: The Ballad of the Louvin Brothers)

Charlie Louvin was a Grammy nominated member of the Grand Ol Opry and the Country Music Hall of Fame.

As a member of the Louvin Brothers, Charlie racked up twenty-nine Billboard charting singles with his brother Ira. He enjoyed continued success as a solo artist after he split from his brother. Ira was plagued with anger issues and alcoholism and became known for his erratic behavior.

The Louvin Brothers had a great influence on many artists who came after them. “You can’t find anybody, I don’t think, that was not inspired by them,” said Vince Gill after Charlie Louvin’s death. Cosmic cowboy and alt.country/roots-rock pioneer Gram Parsons said the Louvin Brothers were the Flying Burrito’s favorite artists.

Charlie Louvin passed away from pancreatic cancer almost exactly one year ago (late January 2011). Before his death, he had worked on a memoir, partly named after the classic Louvin Brothers album “Satan Is Real: The Ballad of the Louvin Brothers” with Denver-based author Benjamin Whitmer. Whitmer is the author of a novel called, “Pike”, which came out about a year and a half ago and has been described as “country noir”.

I spoke with Whitmer about working with Charlie Louvin and the legacy of Charlie Louvin and the Louvin Brothers…



How did this project come about?

It was kind of wild. I got an email from my agent, saying that Neil Strauss was looking around for somebody to work on a project about a bluegrass legend, and asking if I would be interested. I didn’t know who it was, but I thought it might be worth checking out. So we sent Neil excerpts of Pike and he liked them enough to give us a phone call. Once I found out it was Charlie Louvin, of course, there was no way I was going to pass that up.

The book itself is Charlie’s memoir, mainly about his time with his brother, Ira, during the Louvin Brother’s years, and there’s a little bit about his own life after that.

What was the process for getting these stories out of Charlie’s memory and onto paper?

That was the fun part! The first time I talked to him, he told me, “Make sure you have questions. I can’t just sit down and talk for hours at a time.”

So we started making phone calls that I recorded on my little rig. So I could talk to him and capture everything. I’d take them home at night and transcribe them and come up with some more questions. We just started from childhood and worked our way on up.

I got to go down there for about a week, which was pretty incredible. Sit on his back porch and smoke cigarettes and here those stories.

We got to go see Ira’s grave together, which was amazing.

Wow, tell me about that experience.

It was amazing. It was chilling. Haunting. Incredible. It was actually at the grave where he told me that story about the last duet he had with Ira.

Just hearing that…He still felt very close to his brother and as hard as his brother was on him, he still loved him very much. It was a very touching moment.

I wanted to ask you about that; as hard as Ira lived and as badly as he treated Charlie, you still get the feeling that Charlie loved his brother.

Oh, yes. Right up to the last time we talked, he was talking about it. About halfway through this process, Charlie started to understand that pancreatic cancer was something he was not going to survive. That was something he talked about; part of the reason he wasn’t as broken up about it as someone like me might be…or the reason he could have the courage he did in dealing with it was knowing that he was going to see his brother again.

Tell me a little about Charlie. I met him once and he seemed very down to earth and warm. I know he was a Christian, but he also wasn’t afraid to throw some cuss words around. He seemed like a unique person.

Absolutely. He was a Christian. He was a big believer, but he was not the proselytizing kind, except in his music. He wouldn’t beat anybody up about it or anything like that. He was very down to earth.

The first time I talked to him, I was kind of nervous, to be honest. I had no idea what kind of project this was. I’d never really spoken to him before. But he set me at ease immediately. I mean, he started telling jokes and stories. And pretty much the whole project worked like that. Just sitting around and kicking these stories back and forth. It was really easy to do with him. I’ve heard stories of other people who’ve done this kind of project and it was really hard on them. But not me.

When I do these interviews for my radio show, and then transcribe them for my blog, the written version can be a challenge. When I interview old bluesmen, especially, it’s tough to capture their unique voice, without it appearing contrived or condescending in the written form; like a caricature of their actual voice. This book is obviously told in Charlie’s totally unique voice, but I’m wondering if it was a challenge to achieve that.

As you know, absolutely. That was THE challenge. He had such a strong voice. That was the one thing I felt like I was tasked with not screwing up. If I could get that right, everything else would be OK.

When you sit down and talk to someone, they’re doing like I’m doing now. They’re stumbling for words and muttering and not quite getting it right. There’s lots of extraneous stuff in there that you have to find ways to filter out while keeping that unique voice.

In some of the stories you can tell he told them so many times that it was easier. But with some of the stuff, the tougher stuff and the stuff that hadn’t been told a lot, we had to do it several times and keep working on it.

What did it mean to Charlie to have this story told this way…for this book to be here for people to read?

That’s my one huge regret is that he’s not around to see the reception it’s gotten. It’s gotten a much warmer reception than I think I anticipated for sure, and I think more than anybody else involved in the project thought it would, either.

I don’t think he knew that it would be as big as it had been, or that it would be talked about as much as it has been.

He’d been through this before in a couple different ways. I don’t want to name the books, but he had a couple of books written about him and he was not real happy with them. He was kind of excited, I think, to just get it down the way it was.

There were always rumors. There’s the rumor that Ira tried to choke Elvis to death and all that stuff and I actually believed them. Charlie was happy to set the record straight.

Why is this book important? Why is it important that we remember Charlie Louvin and the Louvin Brothers?

I have a number of different answers to that.

Number one is this idea of these songs. The songs they learned from their mother and that carried over and kept being repurposed and rereleased and reinvented. Some they made hits out of, like “Knoxville Girl”. They’re more like a blood memory than a song.

They came down from generation to generation as the European peasantry passed them along from one to the other. That’s something that I think has been to a large degree lost in country music. I think they did that in a way that hadn’t been done before. I remember talking to him about the Louvin Brothers album “Tragic Songs of Life” and he said, “sometimes it seems like there’s more tragedy than there is life.” And it does feel like that from time to time, but we need those songs. I think they’re absolutely important.

I see some of these newer bands, alt.country or whatever, trying to sort of bring back that sense of these deeper-running songs, with various degrees of success. I just think everyone owes them a huge debt of influence and this huge debt for the influence of those songs.

Benjamin Whitmer has a new novel on the way. You can find out more at www.benjaminwhitmer.com.


Me & Charlie Louvin, 2007...

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Ryan Mifflin is the host of Dirty Roots Radio, a "Quentin Tarantino-ization of a spaghetti western style old-school record show" featuring renegade country, vintage gospel, raw blues, greasy soul, punk, and funk. Tune in to Dirty Roots Radio every Thursday night from 8 to 10 p.m. (central) on WGRN 89.5 FM. Listen online from anywhere in the world at www.wgrn.net.


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