Back in the Loop

updated 04/19/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/19/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Gatlin battled cocaine and the New Nashville

WHEN LARRY GATLIN WAS AN UPSTART songwriter at a Nashville music-publishing company in the '70s, he and his buddies would scrawl notes to one another on a basement chalkboard. One day, Gatlin—a cocky cutup from the tough West Texas oil fields—was surprised by an anonymous message: Will Rogers Never Met Larry Gatlin. The joke that America's cowboy philosopher, who never met a man he didn't like, wouldn't have liked Gatlin stung something fierce. But now he understands. "I was a good ol' boy then," admits Gatlin, "but really sick, arrogant and full of piss and vinegar."

Rogers died in a 1935 plane crash, but between now and November he and Gatlin are merged in spirit on Broadway. Gatlin, 44, who received the 1976 Best Country Song Grammy for "Broken Lady" and picked up nine other Grammy nominations and 26 BMI songwriting awards while performing with Gatlin Brothers Steve and Rudy, is starring in the hit musical The Will Rogers Follies. And Larry thinks Will wouldn't mind. "There was no self-examination before. Every day now, I check those areas I need to work on actively. That's why Larry Gatlin's better."

Gatlin sees his Broadway debut as nothing short of a kind of rebirth. Since his career crested a decade ago, he has struggled to crack the radio playlists of today's New Nashville, where '70s veterans are virtual pariahs. He has also kicked addictions to cocaine and booze and had surgery on vocal-cord cysts that threatened his career. "Picasso had his Blue Period. I had my horse's-rear period," he says. "It's all come full circle."

Despite some opening-night jitters, Gatlin has made a smooth transition to the stage, even mastering some elementary choreography. "I thought I had two left feet. I was wrong," he jokes. "I have four. But it ain't a lot of heavy hoofin' like Fred Astaire." Even better, he doesn't need a day job. Gatlin's contract offers "a good base salary" plus a "substantial" allowance that permits him to rent a 3,100-square-foot pad some 60 floors up in Trump Tower. (Maria Maples, Trump's main squeeze, is a Follies costar.) "This is my fantasy," says Gatlin. "To live in New York City's most gorgeous apartment—then go back home."

He and wife Janis, 46, recently sold their Nashville-area farm and returned to their Texas roots, settling near Austin. Gatlin grew up around Abilene and Odessa, the son of a rugged oil driller. Curly Gatlin and his wife, Billie, also drilled Pentecostal hellfire and brimstone into their three sons and one daughter. "There was no rebellion in our family," says Gatlin. "We toed the line and did things Daddy's way." At 6, Larry began performing with his younger brothers as a gospel trio. At 16, the Odessa High football star met Janis Moss, then 18 and a student at Odessa College. They married in 1969, while he studied English at the University of Houston and she taught school.

Gatlin studied law but quit after six months. "Deep down," he says, "I knew I wanted to be a songwriter." In 1971 he played for country singer Dot-tie West, who brought him to Nashville, paying him $100 a week to write songs. The brash but charismatic Gatlin fell in with "a bunch of wonderful writers, entertainers, artists. My new heroes—and all of 'em drug addicts. We'd pass a doobie one way, a guitar the other."

Rejoined by his brothers, Larry's career took off with such hits as "Broken Lady " and "Statues Without Hearts." So did his reckless appetite for cocaine. In early 1984, Gatlin showed up loaded as Wayne Gretzky's guest for hockey's all-star game ("Wayne's straight as Tonto's arrow and had no idea I was so high, I could've farted in a birdhouse")—then sealed himself in at the Waldorf-Astoria for a week, alone and paranoid with a $7,000 stash, jamming a chair under the doorknob. "I was a demonic, egomaniacal, overamped, sick puppy," says Gatlin of those years. Yet he managed to keep performing with his brothers—and insulate his wife and two children from his excesses.

The nightmare ended after a three-day freebasing bender that left him "crawling on my hands and knees putting carpet lint into the pipe" at a Dallas Holiday Inn in late 1984. A week later, Gatlin checked into an Orange, Calif., hospital and spent 28 days detoxing.

Still, Gatlin hadn't seen the end of his troubles. Larry hoped the Gatlins could reclaim their niche by changing labels, producers, agents and managers. But radio programmers ignored them. "I was over 25, didn't wear a hat and had neckties older than most people singing on the radio," he says. Moreover, a series of what he calls "bad investments" and tax-law changes led to a million-dollar hit from the IRS in 1987. Worse, the brothers were still on the road some 200 days a year, and Gatlin's voice was shot from painful cysts. Then, in early 1991, says Gatlin, he had a divine revelation and shared it with his brothers from a Pennsylvania hotel. "God said, 'If you can't sing, don't sing. Trust me. I'll take care of you.' And I told them, 'Let's don't beat this thing to death.' "

In May of that year, Gatlin underwent surgery to remove a benign cyst on each vocal cord. Soon after, the brothers started thinking about building a theater in Branson, Mo., where such mainstays as Mel Tillis, Roy Clark, Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn have sought refuge in semiretirement. The Gatlins' Adios tour, which ended last December, paid off Larry's debts and got the IRS off his back. Now the three hope to open in Branson—where they will play up to six months a year—once Larry finishes Follies. Janis, who visits New York with the kids when she can (Kristin, 20, is taking time off from the University of Alabama, and Josh, 16, is in high school), earns raves for helping her husband survive. "She is one of those miracles—spiritual, steadfast, old-fashioned and liberated," says Larry. "Through it all, she believed that the man she loved was still in there somewhere."

As twilight falls over Trump Tower, Gatlin ponders the possibility of darkness descending over his life once again. He says, though, that he's more in control now. "Of course I have to guard against a screwup," he admits. "Like so many people, I used to live life from the outside in. But now life isn't something that's happening to me but issuing forth from me. I'm exactly at the point in the universe I'm supposed to be."

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