While Charlie and Ira Louvin could sing upbeat material when they were of a mind -- the lively "Cash on the Barrelhead" and "Pitfall" were among their hits -- happy songs didn't seem to come naturally to them, and when they were given the opportunity to make their first long-playing album in 1956, they opted to record a set of downbeat numbers called Tragic Songs of Life. The album ranks among the Louvin Brothers' finest recordings, a collection of numbers in the ballad tradition that span the dark end of the emotional spectrum from bittersweet nostalgia to heartbreak all the way into murder. While on the surface some of these songs may seem emotionally exaggerated, Charlie and Ira's harmonies, as clear and pure as a mountain stream, bring an honest and firmly grounded sensibility to tunes like "The Knoxville Girl," "Mary of the Wild Moor" and "My Brother's Will," and while "I'll Be All Smiles Tonight" and "Let Her Go, God Bless Her" are less bloody, the Louvins make these tales of broken hearts seem every bit as effecting. Accompanied only by Paul Yaldell on guitar and a nameless bassist and snare drummer, Ira's lead vocals and mandolin work on Tragic Songs of Life are outstanding, while Charlie's supportive guitar chords and splendid harmonies are equally impressive. It wouldn't be hard for an album like Tragic Songs of Life to seem either morbid or unintentionally comical, but the genius of the Louvin Brothers is that this music never makes a wrong step; instead, these are 12 stories of the inevitable tragedies that touch every life, and there's a compassion in their performances that's beautiful and profoundly moving. Quite simply, this is a landmark of traditional country music that remains powerful more than fifty years after it was recorded.
AllMusic Review by Mark Deming