Country Hall Of Fame Artist Larry Gatlin Talks About His Great Career And Writing His Classic Hit Songs

Larry Gatlin
Larry Gatlin

This week (on October 14), country music legend and Grammy-winning artist Larry Gatlin was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. Gatlin (along with Dwight Yoakam, Marcus Hummon, Kostas, Rivers Rutherford, and Sharon Vaughn) joined the existing 213 members of the elite organization, when he was inducted during the 49th Anniversary Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame gala. Gatlin has long been known for his powerful, soulful vocals and his excellent songwriting.

In a career that has spanned more than half a century, Gatlin—along with his famous brothers Steve and Rudy—has earned a lifetime of noteworthy achievements. His 1975 hit “Broken Lady” garnered the Grammy Award for Best Country Song, while “All the Gold in California” was named Single of the Year from the Academy of Country Music (ACM). In addition, the Gatlin Brothers picked up the ACM’s Album of the Year award for Straight Ahead (in 1980) and the Male Vocalist of the Year award went to Larry. They also received five Country Music Association (CMA) nominations for Vocal Group of the Year, plus Single, Album, and Male Vocalist of the Year.

The Gatlin Brothers also had many hits on the charts; they scored 7 #1 singles, 32 Top 40 records, and 5 BMI “Million-Air” awards. Impressively, Larry is ranked fourth as solo songwriter, with the most self-penned Top 40 Billboard hits. In addition, a virtual Who’s Who of entertainers have recorded music from his song catalog including Elvis Presley, Barbara Streisand, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Glen Campbell, Kris Kristofferson, Tom Jones, Dottie West, Charlie Rich and Johnny Mathis.

A native of Texas, Gatlin’s signature songs also include “I’ve Done Enough Dyin’ Today,” “Statues Without Hearts,” “I Wish You Were Someone I Love,” “Night Time Magic,” “Houston (Means I’m One Day Closer To You),” and “The Lady Takes The Cowboy Every Time.”

We are pleased to present this new Q&A interview with Larry Gatlin, which was done a week before the Hall of Fame event. He talks about his reaction to receiving this prestigious honor for his songwriting. He also recalls the eight minutes that changed his life, and the stories behind two of his most famous hits.

BC: Congratulations on being inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. What does it mean to you, to receive this honor?

Here’s a video of the Gatlin Brothers performing
their hit, “All the Gold in California.”

Larry Gatlin: The Good Book says, God forbid that I should glory except in the cross of Jesus Christ. The spiritual man in me says that’s true. The old carnal selfish, worldly man in me says, “Hallelujah, I finally made it!” It is a great honor. I am humbled by it and grateful for it. If you’re a baseball player, I think you want to get into the Hall of Fame. If you’re a football player, the same thing. If you’re a columnist, I think you want to win a Pulitzer. That’s natural. The responses I’ve had from most of my friends when they found out about it, they said, “Holy cow! It’s about time. It’s long overdue.” On the one hand, I appreciate their sentiment, but on the other hand, I’ve told them it’s all in God’s time. The Book says for everything there is a season. If you only had one time to get a big old bowl of Blue Bell ice cream, would  you want it 20 years ago or would you want it October 14? I want it October 14 (the date of the Hall of Fame event).

I’m very grateful for it. I wanted it, and yes, at times I got discouraged, believing that I deserved to be in there. But again, things happen in God’s time. His timing’s perfect—mine ain’t worth a crap.

BC: Country music legend Dottie West signed you to a publishing contract, which was your first big break. What did she see in you?

Gatlin: When I first met Dottie West, I was auditioning for a gospel group in Las Vegas, the Imperials. All I’d ever wanted to be was a gospel singer. They were working with Elvis Presley, they were working with (singer) Jimmy Dean, and I didn’t get the job I was trying out for. While I was with her, she was Jimmy Dean’s opening act at the Landmark Hotel in Vegas. When I found out I didn’t get the job, I was sitting around one night, and Glen Campbell had given her a couple of Ovation guitars. I asked her if I could borrow one and started finger-picking a little song that I was kind of making up. She said, “You’re making that up, aren’t you?’ I said, “Yes, ma’am. I am.” She said, ‘Well, you look enough like (singer/songwriter) Mickey Newbury—you’ve got to be able to write a song.” That kind of piqued my interest. I wrote a couple of songs while we were there. [But] since I didn’t get the job and didn’t move to Nashville to be with the Imperials, I went back home to Houston, wrote eight songs, sent them to her. Then she sent me a plane ticket to come to Nashville. I think it was partly that she felt sorry for me, because I was so sad about not getting the job with the Imperials, but God had a different plan for me.

Here’s a video of Larry Gatlin performing his Grammy-winning
hit, “Broken Lady.”

It worked out. Four years after I didn’t get the job with the Imperials, I won a Grammy for Song of the Year for “Broken Lady.” I’m looking at it right now on my bookcase. I think Dottie thought I had a little talent…I’ve always been a creative person. And she liked my singing. That combination got me to Nashville, and I’m grateful for her. I would not be in Nashville—I would not be a member of the Grand Ole Opry. And I wouldn’t be sitting in this nice house, drinking coffee, and talking to you if it wasn’t for Dottie West.

BC: Early on, how did you get started writing songs?

Gatlin: I love [writing the] words. As a kid in junior high and high school, I loved to write stories. I loved English. I made straight A’s in English, Political Science, and History courses all my life.

I had written a few little poems and short stories. And in college I learned how to play guitar a little bit, so that obviously helped in the songwriting effort.

BC: I read your credits, and I noticed you wrote many of your classic songs by yourself. Is that correct?

Gatlin: The first eight songs I did because I was in Houston by myself. I didn’t know any songwriters. I didn’t know to do any of that with co-writing. When I got to Nashville, Dottie introduced me to Mickey Newbury. He wrote all of his songs by himself and he was really my first songwriting hero, along with Roger Miller, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson. Mickey wrote his own songs, and he recorded his own songs…he did it his way. He fought Nashville for years. They all wanted him to get a band and go on the road.

When I got to Nashville, my brothers were still in college in Lubbock at Texas Tech University. I knew all along that if anything good ever happened in Nashville career-wise, songwriting-wise, singing-wise, that I wanted them to come sing in a group with me. That’s what we had always done. Mickey was my first really big influence. He told me to sing those songs and write my own songs. From 1971 to 1992, we had 34 Top 40 records on the country charts. I wrote eight number one records for us by myself, and I wrote one number one record for Johnny Rodriguez. I had songs recorded by other people but never a big hit by anybody else. [I did write a song] with Barry Gibb (of the Bee Gees), that no-writing hack (laughs). We wrote a song called “Indian Summer” that Barry and my brothers and I recorded with Roy Orbison.

Here’s a video of Larry Gatlin performing his classic song,
“I’ve Done Enough Dyin’ Today.”

We had a wonderful career in Nashville…I’m grateful for it. My wife Janis and I decided to move back to Texas in 1992. I continued to write songs, and Steve, Rudy, and I did a couple of little albums.

I came back (to Nashville) about eight years ago, and I did a lot of co-writing for a while with some great writers—Allen Shamblin, John Rich, Leslie Satcher, Billy Dean, Eddy Raven—and it was fun. We wrote some really good songs. I’m not going to sit down and write a bad song. I know how not to do that; I know the craft. Like I tell people, every word needed in those songs are in the dictionary, and I know what order they come in. I get an idea, or someone shares an idea for a song. We’re not going to write a bad song. The problem is for the most part that every time we write them, [the songs] would sit there. I also wrote a lot of songs with Bill Gaither, who’s a great gospel songwriter and one of my dearest friends. He and the Gaither Vocal Band and some of the people in the gospel field recorded some of them.

BC: How did your hit song “All the Gold in California” develop?

Gatlin: That’s going to be part of my acceptance speech (at the Hall of Fame). In 1978, I was right in front of the Hollywood Bowl in L.A. in a traffic jam. Right in front of me was a 1958 Mercury station wagon with all the license plates. It had a bunch of kids hanging out the window, pots and pans and boxes. I (tend to) talk out loud to myself…I don’t have any internal dialogue. I said, “Well, these poor Okies have come from Oklahoma to California…they think they’re going to strike it rich. It looks like the Joad family from (the movie) Grapes of Wrath. They’re going to find out all too quickly that all the gold in California is in a bank in the middle of Beverly Hills in somebody else’s name. I wrote [that lyric] down on the Hertz Rent-a-Car slip, and then the traffic jam broke up. I went over to Burbank for a meeting and after that meeting, I came out in my Hertz Rent-a-Car. It was seven minutes after six. I had to leave that parking lot at 6:15 because I had another meeting. [It was in] eight minutes that I wrote “All the Gold in California.” At the Hall of Fame induction, I’m going to tell people that if it wasn’t for those eight minutes, I probably wouldn’t be standing here tonight.

Here’s a video of the Gatlin Brothers performing their hit,
“Houston (Means I’m One Day Closer To You).”

BC: As a songwriter, do you consider yourself more of a lyricist or melody person?

Gatlin: I’ve been exposed to great music all my life. My uncle was a jazz pianist. He introduced me to people like Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Ella Fitzgerald, Etta James, the Four Freshmen, the Four Preps, the Anita Kerr singers…all those great singers and groups. In high school, my choir director, Dr. Everett Maurice Alfred, sang all the classical great choral music. Of course the gospel—the Blackwood Brothers from Memphis, the Statesmen Quartet from Atlanta—it was all that great gospel music and the music in church that I learned. I’ve had a varied experience with music.

The melodies are easy. You can take three or four little basic melodies and variations of them and have an infinite number of melodies. That’s a piece of cake. Getting the lyric right, to me, is the most important thing.

BC: You won a Grammy Award for your song, “Broken Lady.” How did that song come together?

Gatlin: I was in Chicago, and the (Gatlin) brothers were about to graduate from college. I knew they were coming to town. I had used them a little bit on some records but really had used some other backup singers here in Nashville. But I was in a cab on the way to the airport, and I said (to  myself), “Larry, what can you do that’s different? That is strictly Larry Gatlin and the Gatlin Brothers? Well, I don’t think anybody buys a record to hear the guitar player unless it’s a guitar record. So I thought…What if we just started out cold with harmony, and I said, (he sings) “She’s a broken lady, waiting to be mended.” I wrote the first verse in the back of that cab. Then I went to Dallas, Texas and finished it [in the front living room] at a friend of mine’s house, [and then I] sent it off to (record producer) Fred Foster. He said, “That’s a hit.”

Most of our songs started with the chorus, with the part that friends and neighbors out there in radioland are going to sing. We did the chorus first. What [part of the song] do people sing? (he sings medley of first part of Gatlin Brothers songs): “Nighttime Magic,” “Love is Just a Game,” “I Don’t Wanna Cry,” “I Just Wish You Were Someone I Love.” Almost all of our hits started with the chorus first, then a little verse, repeat the chorus, change keys, go up a step, and do it again.

BC: That was a formula for writing songs, that really worked.

Gatlin: Yeah, it wasn’t bad. Don’t thump a free melon (laughs). If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Bill Conger is a freelance writer for various publications including Bluegrass Unlimited, ParentLife, Homecoming, and Singing News and is currently writing a biography on The Osborne Brothers with Bobby Osborne. He can be reached at [email protected].