On January 26, 2011 Charlie Louvin lost his battle with pancreatic cancer. The same sentiment echoed online and offline: ‘We’re losing the legends.” Fortunately for us, this legend took the time to get his story down for future generations. The result is Satan Is Real: The Ballad of the Louvin Brothers. Putting Louvin’s memories on paper was the task of author Benjamin Whitmer. Her, Whitmer gives us a bit of insight into working with Louvin and chronicling what became the last words of a Country legend.
Music Tomes: How did you get introduced to Charlie Louvin?
Benjamin Whitmer: I actually met Charlie through Neil Strauss. The whole project was Neil’s brainchild. He’d interviewed Charlie before and knew what a great story he had to tell. I was hired based on excerpts of my first novel which my agent sent him. Obviously, I was thrilled at the idea. The possibility of sitting around with somebody with Charlie Louvin’s history and getting to hear all those stories first hand, it was amazing.
We knew Charlie was sick, though we had no idea how sick, so we began work less than a week after Neil and I had our first phone call. Charlie and I began daily talks on the phone immediately, and I was on the plane down to Nashville within three weeks. It was a pretty crazy schedule, but Charlie was up for it and more. No matter how long we’d talk, or how exhausted you could tell he was, I’d have to all but force him to take a break. He had the kind of work ethic that most of us just aspire to.
MT: How much of the Louvin Brothers story were you familiar with when you started your interviews?
BW: Well, I was lucky enough to grow up with a mother who listened to a lot of traditional country, folk, and bluegrass, so I was steeped in that music from a very young age. And it’s something I’ve always gravitated back to no matter how far I strayed. As you know, it’s pretty hard to listen to much of that kind of music at all without running into Louvin Brothers songs, so I knew the basics. I mean, the story was legend. What I didn’t know was how much of it was true or false, and it turned out a lot of it that I thought I knew was complete junk. I’d always heard that Ira’d tried to strangle Elvis, for one thing, and that it’d turned into a full-on backstage brawl. That never happened, as I learned.
MT: I know there have been some people that were surprised, or even shocked, by some of the things in the book, such as some of the punishment administered to the boys by their father. I got the sense that Charlie took this in stride, that it was a “different time.” What was your reaction as you heard these stories for the first time?
BW: I was shocked by those stories, too. And, yeah, I think Charlie did take them in stride to some degree, but they also haunted him. You could tell that. Especially the way Ira took the brunt of it. That was something that he kept coming back to over and over as we talked. It was like he was circling it and trying to figure out if that was the reason that Ira had such a tough time, and if not that, then what?
Some folks have commented that they wish Charlie and I had been better able to pin Ira’s troubles on a specific source, but I don’t think that’s really possible. I mean, we spent hours and hours talking about why people get lost the way Ira did, and neither of us ever came up with anything like an answer. I’ve known people in my own life who went off track like that, and I’ve never been able to figure out why either. We tried to show some possible reasons, and one of those was the punishment he endured at the hands of his father, for sure, but neither of us were comfortable with giving a definitive answer.
MT: Having been fortunate enough to have interviewed Charlie myself, I know he was a great storyteller and wasn’t shy about laying the truth out there. When you were starting the book, what made you decide to keep the telling completely in his voice?
BW: It was just hearing him. Especially as he stopped telling the official story, if you know what I mean. Once he loosened up and really started working through his life, I knew that I wanted the book to contain as much of his voice, profanity and all, as I could fit in there. I mean, so many of these books, even by folks I love, read as if they’re remembered through a soft focus lens. Charlie didn’t remember things that way, he didn’t talk that way, and I didn’t have any interest in presenting things that way. It became real clear real early that the heart of the book had to be his great, irascible, timeless voice. I didn’t think anything else could’ve done him justice. I hope we came close, if nothing else.
MT: Are there any stories that didn’t make the book?
BW: Tons. I’d never done anything like this before, so I just interviewed and interviewed, trying to get as much as possible. Then, at one point, I was talking to another guy who’d done a couple of ‘em, and he said something about how you need to have 15 to 20 hours of good interview tape to write one. I just laughed, because I had something like 30 or 40.
Then there were the stories that he told me off the record. Now and then he’d say, “Hey Ben, does that thing have an off button?” and I’d turn off the recorder so he could give me one that wasn’t meant for public consumption. I’ll never tell those, of course.
MT: What are you working on now?
BW: Too much, as usual. My first novel, Pike, is kicking off in France with Editions Gallmeister next month, and I’m finishing up my next novel with Oliver Gallmeister for publication over there as well. I’ve also got another novel about three-quarters done, and am researching for a fourth.
MT: Can you share some of your favorite music tomes?
BW: They’re embarrassingly basic. I loved Johnny Cash’s autobiography, Cash, and Waylon’s, too. But, of course, I got the feeling they were both pretty hugely sugar-coated. And I always enjoy spending time with Willie, who doesn’t? And Roy Acuff’s was also pretty good.
I read all those when I was working with Charlie, though. And once I started talking to Charlie, the book no longer felt like a music tome, so I stopped. To me it felt more like a story about two brothers than a musical act. So I found myself no longer reading music books and gravitating towards other kinds.
Questions: What music legend would you most like to write a book?