He’s Now ‘Professor’ Larry Gatlin And He’s Teaching Songwriting
Nashville-based music, entertainment, and feature writer.
Jan 29, 2023,01:28pm EST
Larry Gatlin and his brothers Steve and Rudy are collectively known as the Gatlin Brothers, and they’ve had a long list of megahits through the years. Their list of familiar songs includes the GRAMMY-winning “Broken Lady,” “All the Gold in California,” and “Houston (Means I’m One Day Closer to You),” and many more. And Larry Gatlin has written every one of them.
He’s also written songs recorded by Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Charlie Rich, Johnny Mathis, and others. And he was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame four years ago.
Now, Gatlin is getting the chance to teach what he knows about songwriting to college students in his hometown of Odessa, Texas. Last Monday (January 23rd), marked the first night of the eight-week Master Class he’s teaching on-site at the University of Texas Permian Basin. He couldn’t have been more excited.
“It really was one of the most moving moments of my life to see those young people there who wanted to learn,” he says.”
It’s not the first time he’s taught students in a classroom setting. Years ago, he was invited to share some of what he knows with students at the University of Texas. He was supposed to talk about music, what goes into performing, and the elements of putting a show together, but it kept coming back around to songwriting.
“I put everything together and visited with these young folks and it turned into what they wanted to talk about. And they’re the ones who moved it into the direction of songwriting.”
He’s since gone into other schools from California to London, England to touch on the topic, but this time he’s actually getting to teach a full-length course. He’ll be guiding students both in-person and online to start writing songs of their own.
“The main thing I’m going to do, I’m not going to lecture, I’m going to tell them a few things to help them learn the craft of writing songs. Like the other night I told them, ‘If you write a song about heaven, when you sing ‘hea…VEN,’ the melody goes up on the second syllable (lifting upward as in the direction of heaven). If you’re writing a song about hell, the melody goes down.’ Little things like that.”
Gatlin, who attended the University of Houston on a football scholarship and majored in English, has a deep appreciation for the English language, as well as American literature. It’s served him well as a songwriter and he plans to encourage his students to read the classics.
He gives an example of how a book report he was assigned in high school on John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath, led to one of the Gatlin Brothers biggest hits.
“Thirteen short years later, I was stuck in the traffic jam from hell, right in front of the Hollywood Bowl in California in LA,” he recalls. “ Right in front of me was a 1958 Mercury station wagon with an Oklahoma license plate. And I said it to myself, these poor Okies are coming to California to try to get rich and famous. They look like the Joad family from “Grapes of Wrath”, and they’re going to find out that all the gold in California is in a bank in the middle of Beverly Hills in somebody else’s name.”
In the “Grapes of Wrath,” the Joads, a family of tenant farmers in Oklahoma facing hardship during the great depression, head to California in hopes of a better future.
“About an hour later, after I’d written that down,” Gatlin says, “I wrote that song in eight minutes in the Warner Brother parking lot in Burbank. And six months later it was the No. 1 country song in the world. Ain’t God good?”
Gatlin says he’ll point out how music brings people together, noting “we get married to music, march off to war to music, get inaugurated to music, and graduate to music.” It can also influence others and bring about change.
“If you don’t think Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Buffy Saint-Marie, Stephen Stills, Joni Mitchell and David Crosby, if you don’t believe those people helped end the Vietnam War, you’re crazy. They sang songs, got people together protesting the indecency of it, and brought people into the streets.”
Music can also inspire, and Gatlin will celebrate and highlight the work of friends and fellow songwriters throughout the course.
“Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson, who I think is the greatest wordsmith since William Shakespeare,” Gatlin says. “Mickey Newberry, Roger Miller, Dottie West, and Dolly Parton. If you want to listen to what real life is like, go listen to “Coat of Many Colors,” that Dolly Parton wrote. It’s one of the most incredibly well-written and poignant songs ever, about a poor kid growing up in the hills of Tennessee and making it all the way to the top.”
Gatlin says his overall goal is to support and encourage the next generation to dig deep, and write the kind of songs that mean something to them.
“My most important job is to listen with my good ears and my good heart, hoping these students know I love them, and throwing down my guitar and clipboard and picking up the pompoms to cheer for these young people and encourage them. That’s my deal.”
Nashville-based music contributor to Forbes.com.