Satan Is Real/Handpicked Songs 1955-1962

The Louvin Brothers

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Satan Is Real/Handpicked Songs 1955-1962 Review

by Mark Deming

The Louvin Brothers had established themselves as one of country music's greatest close harmony acts and passionate defenders of country's formative sound and spirit when, in 1960, they stepped back a bit from the songs of faith and heartache that had made them stars and took on a project that was darker and more personal. Satan Is Real was a collection of songs of sin and redemption that dealt in no uncertain terms with the stakes in the war over the human soul, and featured some of the duo's most powerful and heartfelt performances, including "The Kneeling Drunkard's Plea," "The Christian Life," "Satan's Jeweled Crown," "Are You Afraid to Die," and the haunting title cut. It's often cited as the Louvin Brothers' masterpiece, and to commemorate the passing of Charlie Louvin in early 2011, it has been reissued as part of this two-disc memorial package from Light in the Attic. For the second half of the set, 14 artists of note, ranging from Dolly Parton and Kris Kristofferson to Beck, Jim James, and Zooey Deschanel, have chosen their most cherished Louvin Brothers recordings, which appear on Handpicked Songs 1955-1962. There are no duds to be found in this collection -- the Louvins were among Nashville's most consistently strong recording acts in the 1950s and 60s -- but most of the songs that appear here are consistent favorites among the duo's work, and with the exception of "Alabama" (selected by Will Oldham) and "Almost Persuaded" (a version of the Marty Robbins hit chosen by Mark Lanegan), nearly everything here will be found on a good Louvin Brothers "greatest-hits" disc. (And one of the tunes, "Are You Afraid to Die," also appears on Satan Is Real, making it redundant in this release.) The notes on the Handpicked Songs from the artists who programmed them are often insightful and speak to the Louvin Brothers' broad influence, and the beautifully designed package also features a fine biographical essay from Jessica Hundley (as well as session notes that reveal Satan Is Real was recorded in a mere three days). Satan Is Real is a masterpiece that any fan of classic country should own, and this package does it no disservice, but as well intended as the bonus disc may be, it only skims the surface of the highlights of the Louvin Brothers' catalog, and those wanting a concise introduction to their brilliant harmonies are better served with one of two releases from the Australian Raven label -- the collection My Baby's Gone: The Essential Louvin Brothers or their reissue of Satan Is Real, which includes another excellent concept album from the duo, Tragic Songs of Life, as a bonus.

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