Rubbed the wrong way, the Gatlin Brothers are as prickly as Texas cactus. Their albums have been burned and banned. They have refused to record other writers' material. They have committed hillbilly heresy by shushing rowdies in the audience, shouldering past idolatrous autograph seekers and openly criticizing comrades' country tunes as having more hype than heart. What's more, all this didn't happen after they climbed to the top. The Gatlins have always been this way.
So don't try to tell Larry Gatlin, 33, or his harmonizing younger brothers, Rudy and Steve, that they've grown too big for their flesh-hugging britches. "I know," snaps Larry, "that some folks say, 'Who do those cocky little SOBs think they are, anyway?' We say exactly what we feel, we are strong-willed and we think we're pretty good at what we do." Is that arrogance? Nope, answers Gatlin, nominated three times as top male vocalist by the Country Music Association without winning. "I just call it confidence."
No one can say that it's sour grits. The Gatlins have racked up nine Top 10 country hits since 1975, including gems like Broken Lady, Love Is Just a Game, All the Gold in California and, most recently, Take Me to Your Loving Place. Larry's 11th album, Straight Ahead, promises to be his first million-seller, and ABC has listed the family's first network special this week, titled Larry Gatlin and the Gatlin Brothers' Band.
"We don't have delusions about being megastars like the Rolling Stones," insists Larry. They don't want to be the Partridge Family, either. He adds: "I wouldn't take a weekly TV show if offered one. The familiarity of TV exposure breeds contempt."
Characteristically, a feature they taped for their special was the brothers' controversial tune, Midnight Choir, about winos in a Nashville mission. It was banned on many radio stations—copies were bonfired as sacrilegious in several Midwestern cities in 1979—but Larry says: "That was downright silly. I meant it to be reverent. Religious people weren't offended by a song by Kenny Rogers at the same time, Coward of the County—about a triple murder and gang rape."
As for those tales about snubbed autograph seekers, Larry doesn't deny them. "I'm human, I get tired. I have said things I wished I hadn't," he admits. "But it's embarrassing for me to have 150 people push their way up to the stage. It puts me in the position of treating people like cows."
The Gatlins play about 175 concerts a year with their carefully close harmonies and a hot four-piece backup band. Traveling, aboard their own two buses, their family jet or commercially, creates a tension or two. As Larry notes, "We'll raise hell with each other for 15 minutes—'You stupid ass,' you know—but we never split up the furniture and go for a divorce."
The alimony would be prohibitive. At around $10,000 a show, they earn $2 million a year. Larry, wife Janis, 35, and 8-year-old Kristin (named after Larry's friend Kris Kristofferson) and 5-year-old Josh (named after Larry's other friend Johnny Cash) live on 84 choice acres in Nashville's swank Brentwood section. Off the road, Larry golfs, rides his 15 horses, swims in a backyard pool, and goes on after-dark frog-gigging safaris.
Larry's brothers, who have sung with him since childhood, live nearby on similar spreads. The quiet one, Steve, 30, is married and handles the band's bass guitar and business affairs—he updates them on the stock quotes relevant to the brothers' portfolio. Rudy, 28, plays acoustic guitar, wears shades and revels in his role as the brothers' only bachelor. "We know we are pretty good-looking and have cute fannies," he says. Sister LaDonna once sang with the brothers but quit to raise a family back near Dallas, across the state from Odessa, where the brothers spent most of their youth, children of an oil field worker.
After trying prelaw at the University of Houston, Larry quit to sing in bars and clubs for three years while Janis, his Odessa sweetheart, taught third grade around Houston to pay the rent. After he moved to Nashville in 1971, country music powers he refers to as "some of the old-timers" tried to get him to sing other writers' music and find more polished backup singers than his younger brothers. "I said, 'No, we're going to do it my way,' " Larry recalls. "It worked," he adds, "and there has been a little bitterness by some people."
The Gatlins themselves have mellowed. They will sign autographs "if logistics permit" and are somewhat more patient with hell-raising audiences—most of the time. "Me, Larry, the snotty-nosed brat who used to get mad at them and tell them to shut up, I don't do that anymore," he says. "Not the first time. I don't even do it the second time." What about the third time? "Well, there's a chance that their neighbors drove 150 miles and paid to listen to us, too. So I will tell the horse's butt who is making all the noise to leave or shut up."
As Larry admits, folks ask, 'Who do those cocky SOBs think they are, anyway?'