On the face of it, there’s something paradoxical about the Louvin Brothers’ lasting popularity in country rock and hipster circles. Since the sixties, their sacred songs have enjoyed a kind of transgressive chic. Partly this is camp and condescension. But I think it has more to do with the loneliness of their gospel; and Satan Is Real is their loneliest gospel album.
You don’t need to have been raised Baptist to be moved by “The Christian Life”: to hear the delicate, sad tone of explanation in Charlie’s voice when he sings, “Others find pleasure in things I despise” or the yearning in Ira’s harmony on the following line: “I like the Christian life.” The words want to tell a story of triumph, but the story they actually tell-and the story that the Louvins Brothers sing-is more complex:
My buddies tell me that I should have waited.
They say I’m missing a whole world of fun.
But I am happy and I sing with pride,
I like the Christian life.
It would be impossible for Billie Holiday, or for that matter Patsy Cline, to sing “world of fun” more mournfully than Charlie does. When he sings “I am happy,” caution and sadness are built into the very notes of the song.