The Louvin Brothers: Tragic Songs of Life

The Louvin Brothers

The Louvin Brothers: Tragic Songs of Life
Capitol (1956)

Number 999, of 1001 albums you must hear before you die.

It’s a little odd that 1001 Albums devotes more words to the tragic story behind the Louvin Brothers’ lives (Ira Louvin was a violent alcoholic who met a tragic end) than telling the reader why this record MUST be listened to. Country and Western is one genre that I’ve always seriously struggled with, and Tragic Songs of Life hasn’t done anything to alter my appreciation.

Sure, there are some great harmonies on here. Ira’s falsetto is perfectly complimented by Charlie’s lower register. But I find it hard to distinguish one track from the next. Each song has a similar rhythm, a similar melody, the same intro, and the vocal lines all follow the same patterns.

It’s quite possible that I’m not listening closely enough though.

I think what I struggle with most is the bizarre perkiness that exists in this era of Country and Western, and American Folk. What do I mean by that? Take In the Pines for instance. As a teenager of the nineties, I’m most familiar with this song (also known as Where Did you Sleep Last Night) through the heartbreaking rendition that Nirvana played on their MTV Unplugged performance. I dare you to listen to that and tell me Kurt Cobain isn’t trying to cleanse his soul.

The Louvin Brothers sing this sad tale about hiding in the pines where the sun never shines as if they’re celebrating the arrival of spring. It’s all bright smiles and two-step swing. For me, there’s something distinctly false about it all. Quite possibly it’s a sign of the times, when any sort of performance could only be given and received as polite entertainment. The same way movies of this era never crossed any lines despite the dark topics often simmering underneath.

More likely I’m just not cut out for an act like the Louvin Brothers. Although, I fucking love the cover of their Satan is Real album. You know, the one where they’re prancing around in white suits with cheesy smiles in front of a giant cardboard devil while surrounded by fire and brimstone? There’s that weird perkiness again…..

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