Larry Gatlin
 Michael Johnson / Arkansas State University

If you have ever been fortunate to catch a performance from the legendary Larry Gatlin & The Gatlin Brothers, you might notice that the artists have as much fun as the audience. The country icon says that's not exactly a coincidence.

"I believe if you're having fun doing the music, you're halfway there," he told Billboard at a recent concert appearance in Jonesboro, AR. "The audience is bound to have fun if you do. There's an old saying that the man who loves his job his always on vacation. So, if you consider it that way, then I've never worked a day in my life," he states, though he does admit some days might be just a little easier than others. 

"Now, some days it's hard. You ride a bus all night after a double show the day before, and you get there about 8:30 or 9am. You have bus hair, you stink, you're hungry, and you have a 2pm matinee. OK, maybe that's not the most fun you can have with this job. But, I tell people every day, you could be going into a coal mine or a power plant, or digging ditches. That's hard work. So, we do our jobs so that those people coming from those coal mines get their money's worth when we step out there. We're very blessed to do what we do for a living."

2013 marks the 40th anniversary of the Gatlins' first chart hit, "Sweet Becky Walker." The brothers can still be found out on the road, as well as at their theater in Branson, MO. Larry, Steve, and Rudy can also be seen frequently on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry, where they have been members since 1976. His quick wit has made him a favorite on that stage, and he said one of the show's most legendary stars served as an influence on his entertaining style. 

"I was very privileged when I first started touring in Nashville with Marty Robbins. You never knew what he was going to say or do. Some of the old Gospel acts, like Hovie Lister, James Blackwood, or J.D. Sumner were entertainers too. If you can dance or take a picture with someone, or sit down and eat their popcorn, and take them out of their 9 to 5, and the problems they are having, that's a big deal. We never take it lightly, and God forgive me if I do."

Make no mistake about it, Gatlin is far from just a retro performer nowadays. He is beginning to test the waters at co-writing with many of today's top writers after penning all of the Gatlins' hits himself. One writer he has made a special bond with is John Rich.

"I call him 'little brother," said Gatlin. I met him about four years ago at The Palm in Nashville. Leslie Satcher, Terry Choate, and some friends at the Opry had been talking to me  about coming back to Nashville and doing some writing. I really didn't think anybody cared about my songs anymore. I wasn't being ‘Oh, poor me,' but I had made a philosophical decision that our time was over, and just move on. I saw John, went over and stuck my hand out and said 'You and your partner kind of shook things up around here,' and he looked at me in the eye and said, ‘Yeah, but you and your partners did too.' I was dumbstruck by that, and we became friends. Maybe a year or so later, we did something at the Ryman, and backstage we had a little guitar pull, and sang a couple of songs. He loved this song I wrote, and a couple of weeks later, he called and asked 'When can you come write with me?' I said ‘tomorrow.' We have some of the same demons, faith in God, song ability, and we both love to honor the tradition."

He's also serving as a mentor for such newcomers as traditionalist Teea Goans, who recently cut his classic "I've Done Enough Dyin' Today." He says it's important to respect the past, but the industry needs to be open to new ideas.

"People criticize the new artists sometimes, but I say ‘Wait a minute. You need to understand something. Ernest Tubb was different from Roy Acuff. Marty Robbins was different than Ernest Tubb. Ronnie Milsap was different from Marty. It doesn't have to be exactly the same. I love the old traditional stuff, but let's open our hearts and ears to these young people. Keith Urban was raised in Australia listening to country music, and he loves it. He honors it. Let's don't criticize because he rocks it up a little. That's the way he feels it. I'm rooting for them."