ALBUM TITLE: Tragic Songs of Life
ARTIST NAME: The Louvin Brothers
YEAR OF RELEASE: 1956
Holly: Let Her Go, God Bless Her
Kelly: Let Her Go, God Bless Her
Well, for the first album, I got to review depressing Sinatra songs, and now I get to review depressing, but upbeat country songs! Tragic Songs of Life by the Louvin Brothers is a collection of songs about sin, weakness, tragedy, and temptation.
This is the first full length album by the brother duo of Charlie and Ira Louvin, with supporting guitar by Paul Yandell. The brothers had previously recorded a single for Apollo Records, and a few for Decca before signing with Capitol. Their first singles were all Gospel songs, but they decided to make the change to secular music in 1955, with this first album being their secular debut. Most of the songs on the record are songs of tragic heartbreak, misfortune, and murder ballads.
The family that sings about drowning a woman in a lake together stays together, as the old saying goes. The Louvin Brothers were some of the original duos of harmonizing brother teams that started a bit of a trend in music.
The brothers adopted the name Louvin Brothers in the 1940s and began their career in gospel music. After their first successful foray into secular music, “The Get Acquainted Waltz”, became popular, they decided to stick mostly to country music. They joined the Grand Ole Opry in 1955 and stayed there until their break-up in 1963.
Throughout their careers, the Louvin Brothers’ songs were often heavily influenced by their Baptist faith, and were warnings against sin. However, behind the scenes, Ira Louvin was a heavy drinker, a notorious womanizer, and had a violent, raging temper. Sometimes on stage, while drinking, Ira would get so irate about being unable to tune his mandolin properly that he’d smash it on the stage, and then later when he was sober, would glue it back together.
In 1963, Charlie became fed up with Ira’s drinking and abusive behaviour. The group split up and both Louvins embarked on solo careers. Two years later, Ira died in a car accident where he was struck head-on by a drunk driver. At the time, there was a warrant out for Ira’s arrest for a DUI charge. He was 41 years old.
Charlie died of pancreatic cancer in 2011 at age 83.
- Ira was shot by his third wife, and survived, divorced her, married a fourth wife, and then died in a car crash shortly after
- The Louvin Brothers are also known for their album “Satan is Real” with this wacky cover:
Let me start off by saying two things:
1- This style music is not my thing.
2- The Louvin Brothers are good at what they do.
Before we started this project I’d never heard of Charlie and Ira Louvin, but apparently they were a big deal to country music. They are now in the Country Music Hall of Fame, and lots of country stars that came after them credit the Louvin Brothers as super inspirational.
So Charlie Louvin was the higher harmony and guitar player in the group, and Ira Louvin played mandolin and sang the lower harmonies. I have to say, to my ears, the mandolin playing sticks out as more memorable, and I’m a sucker for a good mandolin tremolo! The mandolin can sound pretty terrible when played poorly, and Ira is really able to get a big and dark tone out of the instrument. Although this style of twangy singing is not my thing, they both sing really well. Their voices sound great together, and they sing very tightly with these close together harmonies. Having said all that, this record did the opposite of growing on me over the week. I found myself really looking forward to having the Louvin Brothers in my rearview mirror.
As for songs that I liked or didn’t like; to be honest, a lot of them blended together for me, in a very similar fashion to the Sinatra album from a couple of weeks back. Maybe the whole album was in the same key? But, I’m not going to cop out. Two favourites: Let Her Go, God Bless Her, because of the mandolin, because it’s fast paced, and it’s soooo cheezy! Other favourite: Knoxville Girl. I mean really, what more can you ask for than a lovely waltz about beating the crap out of your girlfriend and drowning her in a river? Seriously. Weird.
To quote my sister, this style of music is not my thing. The moment I put this album on the first thing that popped into my head was “whoa, this is some Grand Ol’ Opry shit’. This is SUPER country, and not the kind of ‘beers and trucks and heartbreak’, but ‘heartbreak and my country home and hootenanny”. I’m trying my best to dredge up anything to say, let alone anything good to say about this album, and I know I’m going to sound like a total asshole, but I can’t hear it influencing any of the music I enjoy listening to, except maybe the Everly Brothers.
So, the good. I will say, the harmonies are pretty flawless. That’s usually what you get when siblings sing together – their voices are generally similar so the harmonies are going to be beautifully blended, and they are here. The guitar and mandolin playing are good too, and I feel like the simple arrangements really fit the sound they were going for and the simplicity of the lyrical content of their songs. I also really feel like a lot of the themes of the songs harken back to those olde English ballad songs, where if a couple can’t be together, they just…die. Or the song Katie Dear being some sort of Ozarks Romeo and Juliet, where our hero asks his beloved, the eponymous Katie, to ask her mom if they can be together, and she responds that her mom is in her room with a silver dagger, ready to stab him. He then asks Katie to her dad the same questions, and he gets the same answer, but dad has a golden dagger. So our hero in his infinite wisdom takes his own knife and stabs himself in the chest. Katie sees this, takes the blade and stabs her own chest. Montigues and Capulets indeed. As for my favourite song, I chose Let Her Go God Bless her for two reasons: 1. The line “I knew her mind was changin’, from the way that she done up her hair”. I liken it to the modern day ‘new hair, new me’, but I chuckled at the thought of whichever Louvin Brother walking into church and seeing his girl with, I dunno, curls instead of updo? and being like “I’m losing her”…and 2. The song is a rollercoaster of emotions. He sees that she’s changing her mind, then says let’s go bet on the ponies, we’ll have a great time! And if she doesn’t agree to this, I’ll die. High stakes!
Now the not good, besides the fact that this album is not my cup of tea. Soooo many of these songs sound the same – same key, similar arrangements, similar tempos. I could have even tolerated a jug band to mix it up a little bit. I found the tone of their voices with all the twang and how forward it is extremely grating after multiple listens. Hell, even after a few songs I was reaching for the advil. Also, there’s a song on here about beating your girlfriend bloody and unconscious, then drowning her in a river? Just what? There’s also two songs singing the virtues of two separate states – Kentucky and Alabama. I admittedly don’t know much about Kentucky and actually get it mixed up with Kansas a lot, but from what I’ve read about Alabama, it’s not that great. Maybe to old time-y white banjo yokels it was, but not to me. Sorry Louvin Brothers, this one is a hard pass for me.
Average grade out of 10:
Link to the album on Spotify: