Larry Gatlin - The Pilgrim/Rain Rainbow

Morello MRLL 34

Larry Gatlin’s music made a big impression upon me back in the early 1970s. Alongside Kristofferson, Mickey Newbury and Buzz Rabin, he was one of the new breed of singer-songwriters who was to turn Nashville and country music on its head. Before this pair of albums. originally issued on Monument Records in 1973 and 1974 were released, I was already a big fan of Gatlin as a songwriter. The twenty songs were all solely written by the singer and demonstrated a rare talent that was fully realised as an original bona fide member of the 1970s burgeoning singer-songwriter genre.

Texas-born Larry Gatlin was raised listening to and performing gospel music. As a child, he teamed with his brothers Steve and Rudy and sister La Donna to form a gospel group known as The Gatlins to sing on a local radio station. The family gospel group was soon touring all over the Southern States playing in school houses, tents, in the open—wherever—in villages and small towns with other outfits like the Blackwood Brothers, The Oak Ridge Quartet, The Stamps Quartet and other family groups. After graduating from high school in 1966, Larry attended the University of Houston where he developed his love of language while majoring in English at the University of Houston despite being on a football scholarship. After college he auditioned for and joined the gospel music group, the Imperials. The Imperials went on to perform in Las Vegas, Nevada in January 1971 at Jimmy Dean’s Las Vegas Revue. While there Larry met country singer Dottie West and she became his friend and mentor. Later he sent her a demo of his songs. She was so impressed that she sent him plane tickets to Nashville. After West recorded two of those songs, Once You Are Mine, and You’re the Other Half Of Me, Larry moved to Music City and was signed to West’s newly formed First Generation Music Company.

Kris Kristofferson included Larry’s Help Me on his album, JESUS WAS A CAPRICORN, using Larry to sing the first verse and as harmony vocalist on Why Me? which eventually became a number one country hit. Johnny Cash, another ‘aware’ Nashville singer, used several of Larry’s songs in his Gospel Road film, including The Last Supper sung by Johnny and The Statler Brothers, and a version of Help Me. Due to Kristofferson’s insistence, Monument Records signed Larry Gatlin to a recording contract in the summer of 1973. The first single, Sweet Becky Walker, a pop-country ballad, reached the country Top 40 and his third single, Delta Dirt, made it to the Top 15 in 1974. Meanwhile Steve, Rudy and sister LaDonna had also hit Nashville, joining Tammy Wynette’s backing band.

At the time, Larry was something of a critic’s darling. His debut album, THE PILGRIM, a stunning singer-songwriter collection, was readily embraced by the business, but failed to register with record buyers. A clear-voiced singer-songwriter totally unrestrained by any musical convention, he moved through moods creating isolated corners of concentrated emotions. Sweet Becky Walker still sounds great today; a classic-sounding song and performance that was an indication of what was to follow a few short years down the road with the Gatlin Brothers. There’s a definite Mickey Newbury feel to My Mind’s Gone To Memphis, blended with restrained Roy Orbison dramatics.

He possessed an incredible talent for combining wisdom and innocence into his lyrical messages and creating a certain vocal sound that became instantly recognisable. Light At the End Of The Darkness is one hell of a gorgeous ballad enhanced by sweeping strings and a building gospel chorus that never falls into the trap of bombast. Then there’s the touching tale of Penny Annie, a moving story that still stops me in my tracks to listen intently to every word some forty-odd years after I first heard it.

RAIN RAINBOW, the follow-up album, fared just as badly sales-wise, despite the success of the Delta Lady single. Sensitive love ballads, lushly produced with the hint of steel guitar, harmonica and guitar shining through when necessary to strengthen the feeling of Gatlin’s lyrics. Alongside his sad-tinged ballads like Found And Lost and Help Me, he also turns in the lighter Stealin’ Sunshine with Weldon Myrick’s distinctive pedal steel weaving in and out of Bergen White’s lush string arrangement. The delicate guitar you’ll hear on Those Also Love is courtesy of Chet Atkins whilst the harmonica on Rainbow (Runnin’ Through My Mind), is by then-label mate Charlie McCoy.

In late 1975, Larry gathered his brothers and a few others to form Larry Gatlin with Family and Friends. Reshaping his whole musical approach, he made the commercial breakthrough with Broken Lady. The single went top five and won him a Grammy the following year. That led to a dozen years of hit singles and extensive touring, but also a downward spiral into a well-publicised drink and drug addiction. But for me it’s the music that counts, and on both these albums Larry Gatlin showed himself to be a fine soulful singer with strong gospel ties and a highly skilled and individual songwriter who specialised in memorable melodies and richly visual lyricism. He’s still out there touring across America, mainly with his brothers, showing that you just can’t keep good talent down.