High Lonesome Theology

KillingTheBuddha.com has been publishing on a shoestring — or less — for nearly nine years now, a miraculous feat of online longevity we’re celebrating in July with the publication of the second KtB book to manifest in print, Believer, Beware: First-Person Dispatches from the Margins of Faith, a collection of KtB’s greatest hits mixed with all new material. “Greatest hits” isn’t quite right — Believer, Beware represents just one facet of KtB, personal essays, and, alas, excludes many of our favorites even in that category. So this summer we’re highlighting a piece from the archive every week. This week it’s “High Lonesome Theology,” by Lorin Stein (February 2, 2001), a critical examination of country Christian cult favorites the Louvin Brothers.

For Ira [Louvin], to be a man was to be a drunk, and he was by all accounts the kind of drunk whose sickness looks and feels like a kind of possession. “Today they call it an illness,” [brother] Charlie says. “In those days it was bein’ mean.” Ira’s meanness was legendary. When Ira drank, he fought, cheated compulsively on each of his four wives, and worst for his career, killed a tour with young Elvis Presley, a devoted Louvins fan, by calling him a “white nigger” and his rock ‘n roll “trash.”

But mean is a euphemism for what Ira really was — or, what he was according his songs. In the songs, meanness is given its religious name (evil) and its true meaning: separation from God. “When I lived my life — so reckless and evil –” the brothers sing in “Satan’s Jewelled Crown,”

The things I would do were the will of the Devil:
I was selling my SOUL for Satan’s jewelled crown.

We came across Stein — unbeknownst to us, a rising star editor at Farrar, Straus, Giroux — through a review he’d written of Merle Haggard. We thought he was a she, and we thought we had her number: Brooklyn country music cool kid, with a big collection of vinyl and maybe some pointy glasses. But Lorin — it’s a man’s name, you know — surprised us by cruising right past the not insignificant kitsch of an album that illustrates its title, Satan is Real, with a 12-foot-tall plywood devil:

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.

It’s a great piece, and if we ever get around to pulling together that anthology of KtB music writing we’ve been talking about for years — Pop! Goes the Lord: Songs about Fucking and God — we’ll have to beg Lorin for permission to reprint it. For now, though, we hope you’ll simply enjoy it online.

Read “High Lonesome Theology.”