Louvin BrothersOn January 26, influential country musician Charlie Louvin died at age 83. He and his brother Ira performed and recorded as the Louvin Brothers, until they split up in the early sixties, when Charlie began a solo career. Perhaps because of the spare instrumentation of Charlie’s guitar and Ira’s mandolin, as well as their heart-felt harmonies, they influenced the Everly Brothers, the Byrds, and country rock legend Gram Parsons.

Another fan, Emmylou Harris, was quoted by the New York Times: “. . . there was something scary and washed in the blood about the sound of the Louvin Brothers.” In fact, simply “washed in blood” might better characterize one of their songs.

In the course of airing a Charlie Louvin memorial broadcast to which I was listening, Columbia University’s WKCR played an old Louvin Brothers song titled “The Great Atomic Power.” A site called Atomic Platters describes it in words that can be applied to much of their music: “beautifully harmonized, gospel inflected.” Perhaps because of the perceived element of camp in a song about nuclear war, “The Great Atomic Power” was rerecorded by the likes of Raul Malo* and Uncle Tupelo with Jeff Tweedy.

Atomic Platters on the song’s origin:

In Charles K. Wolfe’s 1996 biography of The Louvin Brothers, ‘In Close Harmony,’ Charlie Louvin is quoted recalling that co-writer Buddy Bain was responsible for the basic theme of the composition: “The song was his idea, something he came up with after they dropped the big one. Buddy was trying to write it and he wasn’t too lucky in getting the song to say what he wanted it to say. Ira took his title and his notes he had and finished the song for him.”

“The Great Atomic Power” was first recorded in 1952, the year that the thermonuclear (more commonly known as hydrogen) bomb, which was exponentially more powerful than the nuclear (or atomic) bomb, was first tested. The song, however, was probably recorded before the test, which was carried out late in the year.

Besides, when Charlie mentions that Buddy Bain came up with the idea for the song after “they dropped the big one,” he was no doubt referring to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Nevertheless, the song may have provided some comfort for those listeners consciously or self-consciously aware that both the nuclear arms race and the Cold War were at their heights. The lyrics:

(Refrain) Are you ready
For the great atomic power?
Will you rise and meet your Savior in the air?
Will you shout or will you cry
When the fire rains from on high?
Are you ready for the great atomic power?

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
May rain down upon our land
Leaving horrible destruction
Blotting out the works of man


There is one way to escape it
Be prepared to meet the lord
Give your heart and soul to Jesus
He will be your shielding sword
He will surely stay beside you
And you’ll never taste of death
For your soul will fly to safety
And eternal peace and rest


There’s an army who can conquer
All the enemy’s great band
It’s the regiment of Christians
Guided by the Savior’s hand
When the mushrooms of destruction
Fall in all its fury great
God will surely save His children
From that awful awful fate


Atomic Platters writes that the songwriting team “likens the advent of atomic power to that of the second coming of Christ.” Perhaps it was these lines to which the website’s author was referring.

Are you ready
For the great atomic power?
Will you rise and meet your Savior in the air?

But, to this author, “The Great Atomic Power” sounds more like an ode to “left behind” — an invitation to join end-timers or dispensationalists, who believe that, just before Armageddon, they will transported to heaven, or at least into the sky — “Will you rise and meet your Savior in the air?” Also: “There is one way to escape it. . . . Give your heart and soul to Jesus. . . . For your soul will fly to safety.”

The song is mercifully free of the gloating typical of end-timers today. Perhaps that wasn’t a characteristic of dispensationalism at the time. Besides, while Ira was notorious for his drinking and tried to strangle the third of his four wives (prompting her to shoot him in the back), Charlie Louvin was known for his kind heart.

What would end-timers do without the threat of nuclear annihilation? It may not be indispensable to their scenario — after all, the earth could be struck by an asteroid. But an asteroid lacks the requisite element of conflict so critical to the recipe for Armageddon.

Once again, we’re left to ponder what kind of people take solace in a world-ending scenario which only they survive. One can understand the satisfaction they might feel on seeing nonbelievers by whom they felt disrespected getting theirs. Not to mention the requisite “East Coast elites” and abortion doctors, etc. But the end-timers also exhibit a fatalistic outlook toward life on earth, almost as if they were serfs in the Middle Ages. It’s like the planet, its demise foreordained, only exists as an end to the means of the Rapture. After all, what is the Rapture, but the sweet synergy of festering resentments, self-hatred, and passivity acting in potent concert?

Let’s say that the Rapture actually came to pass. The reaction of true Christians would likely stand in stark contrast to that of developmentally stunted end-timers. When they meet their “Savior in the air,” far from relishing their status as chosen ones and thumbing their noses at those left behind, true Christians would beseech Christ to save all mankind, not just them.

Where do end-timers get the idea that Christ would buy into a cliquish mentality anyway? In analyzing the Louvin Brothers’ song, Atomic Platters mistakenly “likens the advent of atomic power to that of the second coming of Christ.” The true erroneous conflation is Jesus Christ with the avenging God of the Old Testament.

*Raul Malo, the Mavericks (from whence sprung Malo), and the great Dwight Yoakam are about the only modern country musicians this writer can tolerate. Though he’s fond of the best of old country such as Patsy Cline, Bob Wills, and Tex Ritter.

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