But shortly before he took the stage with brothers Steve and Rudy and the Gatlin Brothers Band, he sat down outside his dressing room for a candid discourse covering his historic career in country music and confronting the state of the business today—and his place in it.
In this transcript, one of the genre’s greatest songwriters as well as singers, the insightful Gatlin begins, surprisingly, with a golf analogy.
The world we live in, if Tiger Woods puts the golf ball in the hole the fewest amount of times, he makes the most money whether you like him or not. Whether he’s Christian or Buddhist, it doesn’t matter. It’s an objective endeavor, not subject to anyone liking him or not.
Our business is a very subjective endeavor, subject to what you’re singing: Writing the right song that gets to the right person who likes it, gets it to a publishing company intern who walks it up to the executive, who takes it to a record company. Then it’s subject to the record company getting it produced, getting radio play. Then Walmart has to like it and put it in the racks, and finally it has to be a subject and sound that the listener likes enough to buy.
All these levels of subjectivity! This means that an absolute abundance of talent doesn’t guarantee that you’re going to be a star, just as an absolute lack of talent doesn’t mean you won’t.
There are and always have been singers in Nashville who can’t sing their way out of a paper bag! At the same time, those people are having hits. Also, there are people in Nashville who sing like birds. For instance, Dawn Sears--Vince Gill’s backup singer--I wrote a song about her: “The Biggest Mistake Nashville Ever Made.” I hope you know how I mean this! I don’t mean she’s a failure! But that woman, when Dawn Sears stands up to sing a song, all the rest of them can sit down! Carrie Underwood, Martina McBride—I think they’ll tell you they sit down when Dawn sings.
But I’m rooting for these kids today. Back when we started, there were also people who couldn’t sing their way out of a paper bag who had hits, and a lot of people who could didn’t get any. It’s the way of the world. H.L. Mencken said you’ll never go broke by underestimating the buying taste of the American public. Having said that, God bless ‘em! I’m rooting for the young kids! My dreams came true—I’m grateful for that.
I don’t know where our career’s going. We’re at a real crossroads, the Brothers and I. This isn’t exactly gallows humor, but we’ve been doing this 58 years now in one form or another, making a living, and as my old, great friend Roger Miller said, “A lot of people coming to my shows are dressed as empty seats!” We’re having a little bit of that now, too. I know we have Gatlin Brothers fans who would love to come hear us and can’t afford a ticket, and if I could get to the promoters I’d say, “Let them in.” There are people in America who don’t have jobs, and we have a natural attrition rate of 20 percent of our fans who die every year. I’m 65. I’m not on the radio and in the press like I used to be, so it’s hard to promote a show when you go into a town and the station isn’t playing your record and people don’t want to write about your show. But there’s an old saying: It’s not what happens to you—it’s what you do with it.
I had the great honor of writing with Curly Putman a couple weeks ago. We had an incredible idea for a song, “The Storm,” about a tornado coming to Oklahoma and a young man telling his mama he can see the storm coming. It was a great honor: He wrote the greatest song ever, “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” and others like “Green, Green Grass Of Home,” “My Elusive Dreams.” “Mr. P.,” I call him—not Curly!
It goes: “Mama, I know how bad we need the rain/But Mama, is that the Devil riding lightning across the plain?/Mama, has Oklahoma ever had a hurricane?/And she looked at me and said, ‘Son, it’s a storm, just a storm’/She’s seen a hundred of them.”
Then the chorus: “Then she said, ‘Son, there’s only one way out of the storm/The only way out is to pray your way through’/She said, ‘Son, storms happen. That’s what storms do/What happens after the storm is up to you.’” See, we all have those things in our lives.
So what I’m talking about is, we have a new deal in Branson at the Starlite Theatre. We have the best agency in the world, William Morris, to book us. We’re members of the Grand Ole Opry and have a loyal fan base--of which we’re grateful. As you’ll find out tonight, we sound like we did 40 years ago! We have our health and we have some gigs, though they’ve been going down the last couple years, especially. So the crossroads I told you about--that storm on the horizon, the storm sweeping across the plains, it’s the storm of staying in business, and I don’t know what that storm is going to do to Larry Gatlin, Steve and Rudy Gatlin and the Gatlin Brothers Band.
I believe I’ll always be making music for people. It’s not about getting rich but paying bills--and with dignity, honor and class. We’ll continue our calling for what we love. So storms happen--that’s what storms do, and what happens after the storm is up to you.
Many years ago I saw an old gentleman, a legend in our business, at a little show with 58 people who showed up in Nashville. I don’t know that I want to say who that old gentleman was, but he performed for those 58 people in a Nashville high school auditorium, and he and the band were fabulous—like they played for 58,000. I’ll never forget it. Maybe I do want to say who it was: Ernest Tubb & the Texas Troubadors.
A couple years later I started really writing, and I saw him again in Reno, at the Shy Clown casino, and it took me back to that night. There wasn’t a whole lot of people at this thing, and it was a noisy casino, and a lot of people didn’t realize it was Ernest Tubb. I wrote this song: “I’m standing here trying to matter/And I don’t think I’m making the grade/Because whoever’s in charge of the dues I’ve been paying/Forgot to mark down that I paid/It’s all over now but the shouting/Because they’re no longer shouting for me/So I‘m standing here crying and trying to matter/Just someone no one’s dying to see.”
It comes to us all in one way or another. Vince Gill is one of the best singers I’ve ever heard in my life and a great guy, but you haven’t heard Vince Gill on the radio in a long time. Or Ronnie Milsap. That’s the storm that comes to all our lives, but the end of it is, I love to sing and write music for people. I’m excited about my new life in Nashville, about the Starlite Theatre shows in Branson. I’m excited about emceeing Opry Country Classics at the Ryman next spring, which will be bigger and better than ever. So I’m not pessimistic, defeated or discouraged. I’m optimistic: Storms happen, that’s what storms do. What happens after the storm is up to you.
We have a little storm in our lives right now, but I’ll pray my way through and get out the other side of it standing on solid ground.
[The Examiner wrote the CD liner notes to The Best Of The Gatlins: All The Gold In California.]
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