Even when they sing secular music, the Louvin Brothers are about the best argument for the existence of a benevolent deity outside of the way that Christina Hendricks is shaped. Charlie and Ira Loudermilk, who for some reason decided that "Louvin" was a more commercial name, sang a type of country gospel based on close harmony. Many singers in popular music pitch their harmonies in fifths (C and G, for instance), which helps keep everyone in key and cover the tonal discrepancies of their voices. Close harmony singers often pitch their harmonies in thirds, which can sound so very wrong with a lot of voices. Many of the popular singers who have pulled off close harmonies are also closely related: the Beach Boys, the Everly Brothers, the Andrews Sisters. It's not completely necessary, as in Simon and Garfunkel, but it seems to help.
Anyway, the Louvin Brothers sang in amazing close harmony, swooping about each other's lines, trading the melody, and generally performing impossible feats of sound as if it were nothing at all. Even when they're singing about the dangers of being broadminded (as they tell us, it's spelled "s-i-n") or how removing the Bible from the classroom will lead to a generation of children who will never even have the chance to go to heaven (yikes!), even when their lyrics are about something that I - to put it mildly - have some qualms about, man oh man how I love their music.
Tragic Songs of Life (1956). Is there a better title for an album of country songs than this? I would posit that there is not. On their first secular album (and second album overall) The Louvins bring home the tragedy and murder and existential horror that our folk-loving forebearers called entertainment. You will never hear better versions of "In The Pines" or "Knoxville Girl" than the versions on this album.
Satan Is Real (1959). Some modern fans (and not-fans) of the Louvins don't know what to do with this album cover. Fie upon them, though, because sublime and ridiculous aren't just well-acquainted but in fact have been living in sin since the first primate slipped in mammoth shit and executed a perfect half-gainer off a cliff. This is a raggedly beautiful gospel album, fueled by the brothers' fundamentalism and given life by their sense - well, Ira's, at least - in their own damnation. It's this same sense of a talent that work contrary to own's deeply held beliefs that makes Jerry Lee Lewis so good. If you don't find yourself happily singing along with "The Christian Life," well, then, sinner, you are failing to enjoy the sweetest temptation of all.
A Tribute To The Delmore Brothers (1960). The Delmore Brothers were a close harmony group of the 30s that rather directly influenced the Louvins. I have only a handful of Delmore Brothers songs in my collection, I'm afraid, so I can't really compare these to the originals. But I can say that the Louvins are in top form on this album, with tracks like "Blues Stay Away From Me" and "Gonna Lay Down My Old Guitar."
When I Stop Dreaming: The Best of the Louvin Brothers (recorded 1952-1963). This collection is the first Louvins album that I heard. I was a big Uncle Tupelo fan and their cover of "The Great Atomic Power" plus a couple of positive mentions in No Depression led me to search this down in 1995. It's such a great collection. I might try to squeeze another few tracks on here if I had been the one to select 24 Louvin Brothers tracks for this collection. But I can't imagine what I could possibly cut. This is essential music.
Close Harmony (recorded 1949-1963). This is the 8-disc Bear Family box set of Louvin tracks. I think this is everything they recorded in a studio during their duration as a band. I suspected that I would get tired of listening to the Louvins over the nearly 10 hours of music, but I didn't even grow remotely tired of them. I had only shuffled through this collection prior to this, but listening to them swerve back and forth between gospel and pop songs, between bluegrass and country and Everly-style rock, that's what I call a wonderful time. But someone should have stopped them during their tribute to the soldiers of the Korean War before they recorded "A Seaman's Girl."