Larry Gatlin has been making music with his brothers Rudy and Steve for over six decades as part of the Gatlin Brothers. A revered songwriter, Gatlin has penned hits for the Gatlin Brothers and countless artists, including Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Dottie West, Lorrie Morgan, Kris Kristofferson and Glen Campbell, among others. Gatlin appears on many “best of” songwriter lists. He’s currently tied at No. 4 with Tom T. Hall for the most self-penned top 40 hits as a country artist with 35 songs. The pair follow Merle Haggard, Marty Robbins and Hank Williams, Jr.
“What I really cherish are songwriters who are song craftsmen,” Gatlin says, settling into a chair in his kitchen over lunch. “Mickey Newbury, Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, my friend Roger Miller. What I study and what I try to learn from and have learned from are the craftsmen. You know what the greatest love song ever written is? [Sings] ‘Because you’re mine, I walk the line.’ What more can you say about a woman? It’s the simplicity of country music, with the craftsmanship and the wordplay.”
In August, the Gatlin Brothers’ “All the Gold in California” turns 40. In celebration of their chart-topping hit, Gatlin sat down with Billboard at his Tennessee home to discuss the group’s legacy, as well as the stories behind five of his favorite songs he’s written.
“I’ve written thousands of songs — a few hits, thank God, a few misses,” he says. “I’m grateful for every one of them, ’cause that’s my homework. I try to sit down once a day with my guitar. If it talks to me, fine. If it doesn’t, I go play golf. This is not a job. This is a calling. This is something that I love and that I’m grateful for.”
He adds, “These songs are like my children. If we take care of the music, the music will take care of us and it always has. Would we love to sing at the Houston Astrodome again like we did eight times when we were hot? Yes ma’am. Would we like to go on tour with Little Big Town? Yes. Maybe it’s time for a little resurgence of the Gatlin Brothers.”
In his “man cave” surrounded by plaques and framed photos of artists he’s collaborated with ,including Presley, Nelson, Kristofferson, Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand and Barry Gibb, Gatlin takes out his guitar and details the writing of five songs that hold special meaning to him.
Gatlin penned “All the Gold in California” while stuck in a traffic jam.
“[In] 1978, I was in a traffic jam in a Hertz rental car. There’s a red light between Sunset [Boulevard] and Hollywood Boulevard going to Burbank. I was going to a meeting on Sunset [and saw a] 1958 Mercury station wagon. This is in 1978, it was 20 years old. 1958 Mercury station wagon with Oklahoma license plates, boxes, pots and pans, kids hanging out the window. I said, ‘Is [that] the Joad family?’ Joad family in The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck’s book about the Okies moving from Oklahoma during the dust bowl, come to California to pick grapes. I talk out loud. There is no internal dialogue. It’s external. I talk to myself. That’s what I do.
“I said to myself, ‘It’s the Joad family. My God, these poor Okies, they’re coming to California from Oklahoma. They think they’re going to get rich and famous. They’re going to find out real quickly that all the gold in California is in the bank in the middle of Beverly Hills in somebody else’s name.’ I took a pen out of my saddlebag. The light changed. The traffic jam broke up. I went to my meeting then I came back out in the parking lot and it was 5:07 on the clock. I said, I’ve got to leave at 5:15. Eight minutes [later], I stopped writing and I had every bit of it. We recorded it, and six months later it was the number one country song in the world.”
“Runaway Go Home” inspired a young girl to return home.
“We had been in Joliet, Illinois, the night before at the Rialto Square Theatre. I was on my way to play golf the next morning and I saw a billboard and there was a beautiful little girl. She had bags under her eyes, and she just looked used, and it said ‘Runaway go home.’ I got to the golf course, wrote it on the golf cart on a scorecard, went home that afternoon [and] I taught it to the band. We sang it that night and we did a video for it.
“Years later, in Canada, I had the flu. We were on tour with the Bellamy Brothers. I was as sick as a dog. I had asked David and Howard if we could go on first because I wanted to go get in bed. We did our show and the security guard knocked on my door. He said, ‘Mr. Gatlin, there’s a lady here. I don’t know how she got back here. She’s crying. She’s not leaving.’ I said, ‘Okay.’ She came in. She ran to me, grabs me and starts weeping. She said, ‘You know your song “Runaway Go Home,” about the little girl who ran off? Two years ago, my 16-year-old daughter ran off to Montreal and became a prostitute and two weeks ago she heard your song and she came home to me.’ It wasn’t a hit. Maybe 12 people heard it in the world, but that young lady heard. Thank God for that. That’s what I’m supposed to do. There ain’t a chart for that.”
“Help Me” inspired Kristofferson and was recorded by Presley, but was written during a difficult time for Gatlin.
“Dottie West brought me to Nashville. She said, ‘If you look that much like Mickey Newbury, you’ve got to know how to write a song.’ Everybody told me I was going to be a star and it hadn’t happened yet. I was going out with her on weekends and I was the janitor. I’d been a bricklayer’s helper. I was a little bit discouraged. I was making a hundred a week. [My wife] Janis teaches school and we had a few little things happen, but six months, I’ve been here six months. They told me I’m going to be a star and it hadn’t happened yet. I sat on the floor of Dottie’s bus and just [sings] ‘Lord, help me walk another mile.’ That one was probably [written] within 30 minutes.”
“I’ve Done Enough Dying Today” was a late-night inspiration.
“We had a little house on Colemont Drive, the first house we bought. It was probably 10 or 11 o’clock at night. I went down to the basement, sat on the steps of the basement [strumming my guitar]. My fingers had never been to that chord in my life. I said, ‘That’s beautiful. I’ve got to write something.’ I worked on it for an hour, nothing. Put the guitar down, walked up the stairs, walked across the kitchen to go get in bed. I said to myself, ‘What am I going to do now? I had that beautiful melody. What am I going to do? What am I going to do? What will I do with it? What can I do? What? What will I do now? What will I do now?’ I walked back across the kitchen and back down the stairs, and picked up the guitar. [Sings] ‘What will we do now? You tell me.’
“So I said, ‘Larry, you’ve got to have a second verse.’ I worked on it for an hour. Nothing. I went up the stairs, walked across the kitchen floor and [sings] ‘How in the world am I going to sleep?’ Turned around. ‘How will I sleep now, you tell me?’ That’s my favorite song I’ve ever written. Lorrie Morgan recorded it. Listen to yourself. I was talking to myself: ‘How will I sleep now?’ Walked back around, [wrote] that down!”
“Fair Winds” is a song about simple appreciation.
“The other day I was talking to Janis about something that happened the way I didn’t want it to, and I said, ‘Larry, you ungrateful little shit. You’ve been pretty lucky. For most of your life, fair winds have blown on you.’ Just said it out loud. I said this line at other times about being blessed and I had not written it yet: [Sings]: ‘Got more money in my pocket than daddy ever had in the bank/ Ain’t saying there’s someone to blame/ Just saying there is someone to thank/ I had my share of ups and downs/ … But mostly fair winds have blown on me.’
“I don’t have a second verse yet. I’m not sure I even want to do a second verse. I may just do a little guitar part, noodle around and come back to ‘Fair Winds.’ A lot of times the big hits, I wrote the chorus part first, the part that people are going to sing, then do a verse. I want to sing ‘Fair Winds’ again. But I do want to write another verse. So I wrote a bridge, a little connector between it … I’m grateful. My brothers and I sing in tune every night. The night that we go out there and we don’t sound like the Gatlin Brothers did 50 years ago, I’ll hang it up when it is no longer perfect. Not until then.”