It’s a minor tragedy of the internet age that millions will have been introduced to this astonishing album as a joke. The cover of Satan Is Real, which features Charles and Ira Louvin, clad in gleaming white suits, pleading melodramatically before a clearly home-made plywood Lord of Darkness, features regularly on those much-forwarded lists of gauche and ill-considered sleeve art.
The arch chuckling is misguided. The Louvins were Christians — devout to the point of being terrified — who grew up in northern Alabama and began recording during the 1950s, creating a canon of grimly beautiful gothic country whose influence still resonates. Satan Is Real, released in 1959, was probably their crowning accomplishment, the Louvins’ trademark haunting harmonies perfectly suited to what is essentially a series of anguished pleas to a God whose ultimate mercy they are not taking for granted.
Certainly, the many artists who’ve since covered tracks have not done so for laughs. Johnny Cash (“The Kneeling Drunkard¹s Plea”), Emmylou Harris (“Satan’s Jeweled Crown”) and the Byrds (“The Christian Life”), among others, all understood and appreciated the Louvins’ total and terrified sincerity. The enduring power of Satan Is Real is rooted in the fact that it is an altogether unironic record, made by unironic people, at an unironic time, in an unironic place.