July 3, 2013–When promoter Gene Wolf asked if I wanted to interview Larry Gatlin before his upcoming Hill Country show, I said yes. I had a question I’d been waiting 30 years to ask him.
So when the phone rang and I heard, “Phil, this is Larry Gatlin. How are you?” I launched into it.
In one of my former lives, I was playing banjo (badly) in a band in Eldon, Iowa, famous for being home of the farmhouse behind the dour couple in Grant Wood’s American Gothic.
One night at band rehearsal, a band member stormed in and said, “Last night I heard Larry Gatlin on The Tonight Show saying that nobody knew how to write a good song.” He was upset. “Well, I’m going to prove to him that I can write just as good a song as he can.”
The fact that I can’t remember his name, and that no one else has heard of this guy, proves that Larry Gatlin was right. But I had to ask Gatlin: Did you really say that?
He laughed and told me the full story.
“Well first of all, your friend put a little hair on that story,” Gatlin said in his West Texas drawl. “I don’t have anything against people trying to write a song. But here’s what I used to do on The Tonight Show.”
Gatlin related how Johnny Carson was a fan of songwriters. In fact, Carson hearing Gatlin’s story song Penny Annie was the reason Gatlin was invited to be a guest.
The first time the young Gatlin sat down next to the famous television host, Carson didn’t ask any of the questions the producers had prepared. Carson instead wanted to talk about writing songs.
“He said, Larry, people are always trying to tell me jokes. I’m sure they are always trying to sing songs to you. So I told him about the night one good old boy came up after a concert and wanted me to listen to one of his songs. I asked, is it as good as those 15 I just sang? He said no. So I said, why would I want to sing it?”
To demonstrate, Gatlin crooned one of the worst tunes that anyone had ever submitted to his publishing company. He sang it to me over the phone:
Oh honey won’t you quit your job
Oh honey won’t you quit your job
You went to lunch
With your boss
When you got back
There was still a sandwich in your sack
It got such a reaction from the comic master, Carson did a “spit take across the desk.”
“I’m not saying people can’t write a song,” Gatlin said. “When I lead a writing workshop, I explain that you all are songwriters. But I’ll bet you aren’t all song craftsmen. There is only one in here, and that’s me. But let me help nudge you gently along that path to beginning to learn the art and craft of writing songs.”
There is no doubt about Gatlin’s ability at crafting a song. His hits include Broken Lady, All the Gold in California, Houston (Means I’m One Day Closer to You), She Used to Be Somebody’s Baby, and Talkin’ to the Moon. As a solo artist, and with his brothers Rudy and Steve, Larry Gatlin had 33 Top 40 hits mostly through the 70s and 80s.
As someone who is “in love with the English language,” he continues to hone his craft, just as his songwriting heroes did.
“Kris Kristofferson, Roger Miller, Willie Nelson, Mickey Newberry, and John Cash… those were wordsmiths,” he said. “None of them were born writers, but they got better as they went along.”
Gatlin is so absorbed in developing as a song crafter, he surprised me by revealing he would have written one of his hits differently today.
There’s the line in I Don’t Want To Cry where Larry Gatlin sings, “Lay back down and love me, and leave the leaving, ‘til later on.” Since the lyric is “lay back down,” he now believes the melody could have gone down in pitch instead of rising as originally written. He sings to demonstrate how it changes the feel and better fits the lyric. Of course, it still sounds like a hit.
“Without question, the words should drive the melody,” he said. “I call it melody matching. If you have a very plaintive part in your song, I think it should be on a minor chord, or an augmented or diminished. It adds a little different color. The melody should always be slave to the lyrics.”
Again he demonstrates with a song. But this is one from slightly outside his repertoire.
“How about my favorite Beethoven symphony? I love the 9th!” he announced, then robustly began singing the familiar tune–in German, no less. “That is Ode to Joy. It is joyful, and it’s big, and it is up in a major key. What if he had done this like he did with his 5th symphony?” Gatlin then sang the famous minor four-note refrain da-da-da-dah. “Oh-am-I-happy? No, no, no! That is the method to my madness.”
Actually I had a second question I wanted to ask Larry Gatlin.
It was in line with his belief that while anyone can be a songwriter, only a dedicated few earn the designation of song crafter.
The question was this: There are literally thousands of talented singers and musicians out there struggling to reach success in the music industry. Why do certain ones make it? What do they have that separates them from the herd? What is “it?”
He agrees there is an “it.”
“You can’t fix it in the mix,” he explained. “You can overdub all the instruments and all the voices, but you can’t overdub the feel. Willie Nelson is not a classical singer; he is a song stylist.”
Then he mentioned his long and close relationship to Johnny Cash.
“Here is the answer to your question: John Cash never in his life ever adorned a song to make it about him. It was about telling the story, about coming up organically from the earth.”
As an example, Gatlin sang one of Cash’s hits–One Piece At A Time.
“Every old boy can identify with that song. One interviewer asked me what I thought about putting John Cash on a stamp. I said as far as I’m concerned, you could put John Cash on the flag.”
Guests at the July 13 show will hear more tidbits like this, along with Gatlin’s personal recollections of his interactions with such stars such as Kristofferson, Jimmie Dean, Dottie West, and Elvis Presley. On stage will be Larry Gatlin and one guitar player.
“I’m working on a show I call ‘will the real Larry Gatlin please sit down,’ because when I first started here in Nashville I just sat down on a stool and did it. That’s what I’m going to be doing that night.”
Even though Gatlin famously holds strong opinions, you won’t hear them at his show.
“People still want to hear me sing, thank God,” he said. “The audience does not come to be preached to; they do not come for politics. You will get the hits, and you will get some humor, and I pick on myself as much as anyone else. It’s all in good fun.”
I can vouch for that. As I end our call, I hear him singing:
Oh honey won’t you quit your job…
Sharity Productions Presents “An Evening with Larry Gatlin” on Saturday, July 13, 2013, at 7:30 p.m. at the Cailloux Theater in Kerrville. Opening for Larry Gatlin will be Kevin Black, with Coleton and Brian Black. Tickets and information at www.caillouxtheater.com.