Monday, January 9, 2012
Author Benjamin Whitmer Discusses Working with Charlie Louvin on "Satan Is Real: The Ballad of the Louvin Brothers"
Before we dig into Satan Is Real: The Ballad of The Louvin Brothers, can you briefly provide readers with a personal history and a description of your own biography and previous writings?
Benjamin Whitmer: My childhood wasn’t entirely dissimilar from Charlie’s. I grew up with back-to-the-landers, and we didn’t have electricity, running water, health insurance, or any of that stuff. Unlike Charlie, I didn’t work in cotton fields, but we logged and raised our own food, so I spent more time stacking wood and taking care of livestock than I ever want to think about. And, also like Charlie, music was a huge part of our life, whether it be from a tinny battery-powered phonograph, or friends and family gathering to pick songs.
I never had the slightest bit of musical ability myself, though, so I decided early on I was going to be a writer, which is pretty much what I’ve been working on since. In between the lamentable interruptions created by day jobs and a half-hearted college education, of course. My first novel, Pike, came out last year from PM Press. It usually gets described as country noir, which I think is pretty close.
Can you discuss some of your favorite musical artists and albums, and those that led you to the Louvin Brothers?
Benjamin: Man, I’ve got too many favorites to name, and maybe it’s just having spent a year working on this book, but right now everything seems to lead back to The Louvin Brothers. One band I love is Slim Cessna’s Auto Club. They released an incredible album this year, Unentitled, and I got to see them here in Denver. Watching Slim Cessna and Munly do their incredible fire and brimstone harmonizing, it was impossible not to think of Ira and Charlie. T
Then, of course, there’s all the bigger names I like. Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris, Kris Kristofferson, Gram Parsons, Allison Krauss, Will Oldham, all of whom have ties to the Louvin Brothers, at least in my mind. Even Waylon and Willie have recorded with Charlie.
Can you discuss your own history with the music of the Louvin Brothers? When/ how did you first discover their music? What kind of impact did it have you and why was it meaningful to you?
Benjamin: They were in the air growing up. My mother listened almost exclusively to traditional country, folk, and bluegrass, so I remember hearing their songs. But I think the first time I really got into them on my own came about 1996 when Nick Cave’s Murder Ballads hit the stores. I really got into that album, and went on a hunt for precursors, influences, etc. This was before music downloading, or at least before I had any capacity to do it, so I’d scour these small record shops in Dayton, Ohio, where I was living at the time. Somehow I came upon a copy of Tragic Songs of Life, and, needless to say, that was a revelation.
What was the first recording that you ever heard by the Louvins? Specifically, what was your favorite recording before beginning the biography?
Benjamin: I've got two answers. The first song I specifically remember hearing by the Louvin Brothers was “Great Atomic Power.” I was real young, and somehow I’d seen The Day After, which was an 80's television movie about a fictional nuclear war. It scared the shit out of me. I just couldn’t believe how stupid the people in charge were, that they had the power to wipe out the whole world and sat around contemplating ways to do it.
Anyway, I don’t remember exactly how that song got played, whether it came on the local public radio station or somebody put it on the record player, but I distinctly remember listening to it, and the adults around treating it like a piece of kitsch. But it didn’t seem like kitsch at all to me. I found it really terrifying and comforting at the same time.
How did you become involved with assisting Charlie Louvin with the autobiography?
Benjamin: It’s an autobiography, for sure. Charlie’s story as told to me. I’m the “with” guy, but it’s his book. The project, as I understand it, was actually the brain child of Neil Strauss and Anthony Bozza. Neil and Anthony are incredible repositories of cultural knowledge, and Neil had interviewed Charlie, knew his story, and really wanted to get it down for his HarperCollins imprint, Igniter Books. I was just lucky enough to hitch a ride.
How did you get started on the project?
Benjamin: It came to me through my agent, Gary Heidt. Neil and Anthony were sending out feelers for a writer who might be interested in a project about a legendary bluegrass singer. We sent them an excerpt of "Pike", not really thinking it’d go anywhere, and they liked it well enough to set up a phone call. From there, things just started rolling.
How and when did you meet Charlie Louvin?
Benjamin: The first time I talked to Charlie was on the phone almost immediately after discussions began. I don’t know what I expected, but nothing as comfortable as it turned out to be. We just shot the shit for an hour or so, feeling each other out. He told some stories about Nashville and talked about his life. I was pretty nervous when I called, to be honest, but by the time I hung up he’d thoroughly set me at ease.
How and when did you decide to work with Charlie Louvin on the project?
Benjamin: It was right after that first phone call. I mean, prior to that phone call, the possibility of sitting down with Charlie Louvin and hearing his stories firsthand was nearly impossible to pass up, but the timing was pretty tough. I had a second novel almost done, a wife in graduate school, two small children, and a day job. But after that first phone call, I knew I was going to do it if it killed me. I just knew I couldn’t pass it up and live with myself.
Can you discuss the process of working collaboratively with Charlie Louvin?
Benjamin: I started off by going down and spending about a week with him, and during that time we nailed down in general terms what he really wanted from the book and got to know each other a little. After that most of our work was done on the phone.
We spoke pretty much every day for months. I’d transcribe our conversations at night, and then go over them with Charlie the next day before beginning anew with a fresh story. Charlie was a workhorse, and as it started to become apparent that there were no treatment options left for the pancreatic cancer, he really wanted to make sure we got the stories down right.
What was the most surprising aspect of their story that you learned?
Benjamin: I think the most surprising thing was how much physical punishment Ira absorbed at his father’s hands. A lot of that’s in the book, but there’s a lot that isn’t as well, just because it could have turned into nothing but a litany of abuse. Charlie loved his father and understood the hard life he’d had that made him turn out the way he did, but he also didn’t excuse it. That was very much the way Charlie was.
He was immensely compassionate, but at the same time he had little use for excuses. And you could tell that Ira’s having to bear the brunt of all those beatings really haunted him. Those conversations were very hard on Charlie, but he insisted they were a part of the story that had to be included.
What was the most challenging for you while working on the book?
Benjamin: The hardest part for me was when it started to become apparent that Charlie wasn’t going to be around to see the book’s release. I know that’s selfish, in that he was the one facing down cancer, but it was incredibly sad. Being Charlie, he never complained, but it was heartbreaking to watch him go through that kind of hell and not be able to do a thing to help.
What has been the most rewarding aspect for you personally about the experience?
Benjamin: On the last day I spent with Charlie in Tennessee, we drove down to see Ira’s grave together. Charlie was in a lot of pain and losing weight fast. The failed surgery he’d had at Vanderbilt to halt the cancer had ruined his sense of taste, so that the only things he could stomach were cigarettes and peach cobbler. Everything else tasted like a cat had pissed on it, as he put it.
We sat down by Ira’s grave, and that’s when Charlie told me the story about the time he visited the grave shortly after Ira’s death. How, sitting there he’d heard Ira’s voice begin a song from somewhere out in the darkness, and had joined with him for one last duet. That’s something I don’t think I’ll ever forget, hearing that story in the same place where it happened, nearly fifty years later.
Looking back, is there a recording that you remember enjoying previously, before working directly with Mr. Louvin on the book, that now has a new-found significance and/ or a deeper meaning for you?
Benjamin: One of them was definitely “Mary of the Wild Moor.” The Louvin Brothers didn’t write it, of course, but that song has always torn me up. And it was one of those that meant a lot to Charlie, too. We listened to it a couple of times together, and he couldn’t hear it without crying. It broke his heart that that kind of cruelty, indifference to suffering, was possible. That’s what he said, that he couldn’t hear that song with getting teared up because it was so possible, and it shouldn’t be.
What would you say are the absolute essential recordings by the Louvins? Which recordings would you personally recommend to newcomers?
Benjamin: Personally, I don’t think you can call yourself a fan of roots/country/Americana, whatever it’s being called these days, without owning a copy of Tragic Songs of Life. I just don’t think it’s possible. My second would be the other obvious choice, Satan is Real. But I’d also recommend some of Charlie’s solo work. I don’t think he gets enough credit for the stuff he’s done since Ira’s death, some of the best of it within the last ten years. I’d recommend everyone head over to YouTube immediately and watch a 2007 video he put out called “Ira,” for instance.
How would you say the legacy of the Louvin Bros influences artists today?
Benjamin: I think everyone who has an interest in those old murder ballads and tragic songs has been influenced by the Louvin Brothers, whether or not they know it. Those songs that Charlie and Ira learned from their mother from the time they were old enough to talk, that came down to them from their ancestors. I see a lot of artists trying to emulate that a kind of authenticity with varying degrees of success, and they all owe the Louvin Brothers a huge debt.
What do you think it is about their music that maintains its relevance, as well as continues to inspire and influence contemporary artists?
Benjamin: I think part of it is that those songs don’t go away. Charlie talked a lot about how no matter how big a hit they had, even at the height of their career when Elvis was opening for them, their most requested song was “Knoxville Girl.” No matter where they went, that was the song everyone wanted to hear. I don’t think songs like that go away. He said something to me once, that there’s so many of those tragic songs of life that sometimes it seems like there’s more tragedy than there is life. Even the gospel stuff, "Satan is Real", and the like, they’re tragic songs, in that they’re about choices and consequences. They’re obviously deeply informed by the tragedies of Ira’s own life.
How has this experience of writing this book with Charlie influenced your own work and artistic sensibilities?
Benjamin: I tend to work things to death. Endless revision, going over sentences again and again, really tightening down until I just give up from exhaustion. It takes me a really long time to write anything, and, of course, what I’m left is with a failure, but I’m usually pretty sure it’s the best failure I could come up with by the time I get done. Ira worked the same way in the studio, and Charlie and I talked a lot about their different methods.
Charlie once said that when he started recording solo, he would just walk in, do the best he could, and tell the engineer, “Well, that’s all I got. It’s probably got flaws, but it’s the best I can do,” and let it be. He was a firm believer that the easiest thing in the world to do was to ruin a good song by working it into the ground. I’ve been thinking about that a lot, and trying to loosen up a little in my own work, but we’ll have to see. So far I can’t say I’ve made much progress, but I’m trying.
What's next for you? Is there a new project in the works?
Benjamin: Yessir, I actually have a second novel done and in my agent’s hands, a third I’m about halfway done with, and a fourth I’m researching for. I write really slow, but I’m always chugging along.