And now, for a defense of fascist theocracy. Thoroughly pious, these guys probably would have signed on. Besides the Louvins’ divine vocal harmonies, what I love about this song is the coupling of the transportation theme with tricky questions of theology. It’s a simple matter of asking yourself how you expect to get to the kingdom of heaven. Cars, boats and planes aren’t gonna do it. Charlie and Ira provide a little doctrinal teaser – mixing and matching some of the preferred means of salvation, the brothers say that “through grace, by faith, if you’re made whole, he’ll meet you in the clouds.” It’s very conditional, but there is hope. Somewhere between Flannery O’Connor and Dante. Some get a bit uncomfortable when it comes to the Louvins’ country gospel. People will assume heavy irony if you try to drop “Satan is Real” on them. Sufi trance, Voodoo beats, or Buddhist chanting might not pose a problem, but white southern Christianity is where many draw the line. “He’ll Meet You in the Clouds” comes from Keep Your Eyes on Jesus. None of the tunes appear on the outstanding When I Stop Dreaming, and I’m not sure how easy it is to get them on disc without splurging for the complete Bear mega box set.
I put the Louvins up there with Duke Ellington and Bach, I know that sounds perverse, but whatever. You can hear the link from Sacred Harp singing to the Delmore Brothers and the Blue Sky Boys up through Elvis, the Everly Brothers and even the Beach Boys (The lovely Beach Boys tune posted by Django West was what spurred me to share this one). These are the guys who wrote the lyric:
"Do you fear this man's invention that they call atomic power?
Are we all in great confusion? Do we know the time or hour
when a terrible explosion will rain down upon our land,
leaving horrible destruction blotting out the works of man?
Are you ready for the great atomic power?"
from "The Great Atomic Power"
or "Satan's jewelled crown, I've worn it so long."
or "Others find pleasure in things I despise. I like the Christian life."
or, more simply, "That word broadminded is spelled S-I-N."
There's an apocalyptic beauty, both thoroughly judgmental and poisoned with self-loathing.
I know he was stuggling to hit those stratospheric high notes, but in the picture above I think the look in Ira's eye plainly shows that he was wrestling some serious demons.
When I lived in Asheville, North Carolina, we used to joke about the area being a “power center” because of its popularity with New Age seekers, crystal mongers and other fringe pilgrims, but the Louvins are from Sand Mountain in northern Alabama, a real power center. It was a prime spot for Sacred Harp singing, Sun Ra spent some time up in Huntsville (where NASA has a facility and where the locals say there’s a good bit of UFO-type weirdness). The northwestern part of the state is a rock and soul ground zero, with the Muscle Shoals connection, links to the Stones, Ike and Tina, Aretha, Isaac Hayes, dig. The Louvins opened for Elvis on one of his early headlining tours, and there are frightening stories about an irate Ira trying to strangle the King because he was playing black music. Ira died in a car wreck. You can see his mandolin at the Country Music Hall of Fame.