With songs like "Satan's Jeweled Crown" and "Are You Afraid to Die" and cover art featuring burning hell, the Louvin Brothers' 1959 album Satan Is Real looks more like a metal album than gospel-tinged country. The Louvin Brothers were a popular country duo known for their harmonies and a string of hit singles in the '50s and '60s until this now-legendary release. Satan Is Real was new territory for the country music fans the brothers earned in earlier years - they were writing overtly Christian songs filled with doom and gloom and Satan.
Satan Is Real is perhaps more infamous for its bizarre album cover than the songs themselves. The cover showed the two Louvin brothers standing in front of a giant Satan cutout and surrounded by fire. It's one of the most infamous album covers of all time and just one part of a truly unique and sometimes strange career.
The cover art for Satan Is Real is a strange combination of corny and terrifying, portraying the smiling Louvin Brothers dressed in white and posing in front of a background of fire and brimstone. Standing behind them is a massive, crudely constructed replica of Satan.
Ira Louvin was reportedly known for "falling into 'fits of faith' when he would paint portraits of the devil," and the album was one of the first recordings to become the subject of subliminal messaging myths.
The brothers, especially Ira Louvin, were the brains behind their strange album art concept and its execution. Ira constructed the Satan behind them in the photo and created the hellscape that surrounded them. Charlie Louvin later recalled the set they built to capture the cover image. He explained:
Ira built that set. The devil was 12 feet tall, built out of plywood. We went to this rock quarry and then took old tires and soaked them in kerosene, got them to burn good. It had just started to sprinkle rain when we got that picture taken.
While the sound of Satan Is Real was not far off from standard country and pop music in the '50s, the lyrical themes were often extremely dark and death-centric. On "Satan's Jeweled Crown," the duo sings:
This life that I've lived so sinful and evil
Drinking and running around
All the things that I do, for the love of the devil
I know my reward is Satan's jewel crown
Benjamin Whitmer, author of Satan Is Real: The Ballad of the Louvin Brothers, a book about the album and the group's career, said he often spoke to Charlie Louvin - who died in 2011 - about that aspect of the record. Whitmer explained:
I tried to get Charlie to explain why the gospel work seemed so dark and terrifying. He said he didn't think of the Louvin Brothers' gospel music as dark at all. It was just about choices. Either you're going to heaven, or you're going to hell, and there's nothing scary about that because the choice is up to you.
The rocks behind them on the iconic cover nearly injured the brothers - according to the liner notes on a reissue of Satan Is Real, the stones they doused in kerosene exploded while they were shooting the photos.
The profoundly religious brothers used the cover as a way to preach a particular message, something that Ira struggled with greatly. "Ira never would preach to an audience," Charlie later recalled, "but he could get through the most sentimental recitation and never lose it, always keep a straight face."