Christmas Day is always a little extra special for country star Larry Gatlin and his brothers Steve and Rudy. The Gatlin Brothers were inducted as members of the Grand Ole Opry on Dec. 25, 1976. “Next year around this time, we will be celebrating 40 years as Opry members, and it has truly been one of the great honors of my life,” says Larry Gatlin.
The Grand Ole Opry’s radio show has been celebrating its 90th anniversary throughout this year, and the Gatlin Brothers have been proud members, and frequent performers, during many of those decades. “My favorite memory has to be the first time I walked on that Opry stage. It was a Saturday matinee during the heat of August,” recalls Gatlin. “We were singing backup harmony with Dottie West. It had to have been 400 degrees in there because the old Ryman [Auditorium] was not air-conditioned.
“Now, I always enter the Ryman from stage right because I want to walk past the place where we stood. We stood stage right, two little microphones, Dottie was singing and we were singing [West’s 1964 hit], ‘Here Comes My Baby,’ so that is my favorite memory.”
Gatlin says he arrived in Nashville in 1972, with his brothers following around 1975. The brothers had just begun having their first major country chart successes with “Broken Lady” and “Statues Without Hearts” when they were given the honor of becoming members of the Grand Ole Opry. “Mr. Bud Wendell and the folks at the Opry and Dottie West championed our cause. They invested and believed in what we could accomplish. They haven’t kicked us out so far, so I guess we are doing ok.”
In the 1970s, before country entertainers had the plethora of online, television, print, and radio opportunities they have today, performing on the Grand Ole Opry was an even more crucial element of a country entertainer’s career. “At that point in time, country music had not really taken off, and entertainers were not on all the national TV shows. The Opry and the radio show was their lifeline to the people. When Dottie brought me to town to write songs for her company, most of the people I started hanging around–Dottie, Jack Greene, Jeannie Seely—were Opry members.
“The first Saturday night I was in Nashville, I went to the Opry with Dottie, and from that moment, I hoped and prayed I could be a member. A lot of my contemporaries, a lot of musicians, get to be guests on the show, but they will not get to be members of that organization, that family. It is very selective and we are grateful more than I can say.”
Gatlin acknowledges the challenge the Grand Ole Opry, like countless entertainment venues, faces as entertainment options abound. “[Grand Ole Opry VP/GM] Pete Fisher does a wonderful job steering our Opry. Pete has a very difficult job, he really does. It is very hard to keep it relevant but at the same time honor the musicians and singers and the members who have been there in the past. It’s very difficult. People used to sit every Friday and Saturday night and be glued to the WSM radio show and the Opry. Now, they still do that, but they are in competition with this little thing in my hand, the telephone.”
Over the years, Gatlin and his brothers have performed at the Grand Ole Opry, both at the Ryman Auditorium and its current home at the Grand Ole Opry House. Regardless of the location, Gatlin is appreciative of the spirit of the Opry. “The Grand Ole Opry is not a building. It’s the morphing, ever-changing, ever-expanding, living thing of wonderfully talented people, talented musicians and writers, and great singers. Also with the Opry band and the crew members, these are the people who make it work,” Gatlin says, recalling a recent Grand Ole Opry performance. “Last night we had 10 different artists on that show. There was only the 30-second or one-minute interval between acts. For the crew and musicians to do what they do and keep that thing on time, and keep hitting the mark, it’s an amazing thing.”
Gatlin and his brothers keep hitting the mark as well, and have been for 60 years. They recently released the Gospel project The Gospel According To Gatlin (Curb Records), and are offering their trademark sibling harmonies as part of Larry Gatlin & The Gatlin Brothers Christmas Dinner Show at Gaylord Opryland in Nashville. The Christmas shows feature a split set, including several of their hits including “Houston (Means I’m One Day Closer To You)” and “Broken Lady,” as well as holiday offerings including “White Christmas,” “Jingle Bells,” and Christmas carols.
“The gig at Opryland is really cool. We are used to doing 90 minutes to two hours for shows,” says Gatlin. “Here, we leave about 4 p.m. and drive 20 miles to sing in a wonderful place. They feed us every night and we’ve become friends with the crew and catering, and the waiters, everyone scurrying back and forth. The sound and lights are wonderful so we are grateful for the show. The crowds have been great and they are talking about having us back next year.”
The Larry Gatlin & The Gatlin Brothers Christmas Dinner Show will run through Dec. 26. They will also celebrate the season (and no doubt the anniversary of their Opry induction) with a performance at the Grand Ole Opry (at the Ryman Auditorium) on Dec. 25.
“Now, it’s a more tempered response when I go in,” Gatlin says of each time he performs as an Opry member. “It’s more comfortable now, like an old pair of boots. I’m still excited, but back then it was total awe. Now it’s total respect and gratitude.”
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