A headliner throughout much of his life, Gatlin remembers the day when his audience consisted of the parishioners at the Evangel Temple Church in Nashville. And for a man who has since made a living on the life of a song, perhaps one of his greatest stories begins in that tiny church -- the Sunday morning he performed "Help Me" in front of a congregation that included Johnny Cash.
Their friendship began that day and is reflected in Larry Gatlin & the Gatlin Brothers' latest album, Pilgrimage, produced by Cash's son, John Carter Cash. An homage to his famous mentors, the project also points to Gatlin's talent as a storyteller.
In an recent interview with CMT.com, Gatlin recalls the day he met the "Man in Black" at the church.
"I was in the pastor's study, putting my guitar back in the case, and the door behind me opened," Gatlin explains. "And this wind, this spirit, this whirling dervish," he said as his hands went flailing in the air, "this presence, this thing, this apparition walked in -- and I felt it."
"Son, I sure did love that song you sang this morning, boy," Cash told him. "I made this movie about Jesus, and we're writing songs for it. You want to come help us?'"
Ironically, Gatlin had been fired two days prior as a janitor at a Nashville television station. Because of June Carter Cash's persistence, Cash went to see young Gatlin perform that day in church.
"I never had a big brother -- till I met Johnny Cash," he says.
This chance meeting gave Gatlin the momentum he needed to start not only his own career but a number of lifelong friendships. Gatlin, along with the Cashes, Kris Kristofferson and others, wrote the music to Gospel Road, Cash's movie chronicling the life of Jesus Christ.
Later, Cash even wrote Gatlin's liner notes for his 1973 debut album, The Pilgrim in which he said, "The pilgrim has heart for sale and soul in his songs." (Cash referred to Gatlin as "the Pilgrim" because he once told June, Gatlin looked like a wayfaring pilgrim.) Over the next couple of decades, Gatlin continued to work with Cash and other musical greats like Roger Miller, Willie Nelson, Mickey Newbury, Red Lane and Dottie West, to name a few.
Gatlin's younger brothers, Steve and Rudy, back him on Pilgrimage as the singer-songwriter takes listeners through a musical narrative through his personal life and perspective of the transition of today's country music. One such song, "Johnny Cash is Dead and His House Burned Down," though a seemingly shocking title, serves as the exemplifying metaphor.
The song idea came about while he and his son, Joshua Cash Gatlin (named after Cash), were on their way to lunch one afternoon. He was taken aback by something his son asked him.
"Dad, country music doesn't sound the same," his son grumbled. "What's wrong with it? It's just different. It doesn't ..."
"Hold it, son," Gatlin said cutting him off. "There's nothing wrong with it. It is just different. ... These young people, they're doing it their way. They're doing it the way they feel it in their hearts. We need to root for them just like people rooted for us when we got here. We need to realize the world will never be the same. The music business will never be the same. Nashville will never be the same. After all, Johnny Cash is dead and his house burned down."
Realizing he had just said something noteworthy, when the two arrived at the restaurant, Gatlin quickly scribbled down the last line on the back of his placemat as well as the entire first verse. Set to the melody of Cash's "Big River," the song spouts lyrics like "I've got nothing against the young country stars, but I could use more fiddle and steel guitars."
Gatlin says of the song, "In other words, 'Hey, do it your way, but don't forget from whence we come. And don't forget upon whose very tall, broad shoulders we all stand.'"
For Pilgrimage, Gatlin rerecorded a few of his earlier songs, such as "Sweet Becky Walker," "Penny Annie" and "I've Done Enough Dyin' Today." The album also features several new songs, including two he wrote with songwriter Leslie Satcher. Together, they both weaved the longing love songs of "Come Back to Texas" and the haunting "Black Gold."
Of greater interest, perhaps, is a song he and Roger Miller began 30 years prior. Starting with only the first couple of lines, Gatlin finally got around to completing "If I Ever See You or Utah Again."
"I decided to honor my friend and finish this song," he explains. "This whole thing is part of a bigger plan, a big tapestry. Somebody's up there weaving it. Like the old saying goes, 'If the tapestry of your life looks like knots and strings, remember, you're just looking at it from the bottom side.'"
The most bone-chilling and heartbreaking song of the album, however, is a bonus track, "A Man Can't Live With a Broken Heart Too Long," which he wrote the morning he learned that Cash had passed away.
"Johnny Cash didn't die of all of those other diseases," Gatlin contends. "He died of a broken heart. He missed June. He wanted to see her. That's it. You can't live with a broken heart too long."
Through Pilgrimage, Gatlin hopes he and his brothers will once again be a legitimate force in today's country music scene.
"It remains to be seen whether mainstream country radio is going to let us back in and give us a shot at this," he says. "If it's based on good lyrics and good singing and good pickin', I think we got a shot. If it's based on, 'Well, he's 61 and we ain't heard of him,' we may not have. ... Like they say in World Series of Poker, I've gone all in. I've pushed the chips into the center of the table and said, 'Deal 'em.'"