Sharing a Meal With Larry Gatlin

The man who lassoed Broadway role of Will Rogers is part clown, part philosopher

`I LOVE spice," Larry Gatlin says. "But I love fried shrimp." He can't decide between the Cajun shrimp or the fried. I have just joined the country singer at the oyster bar at the Union Oyster House, which proclaims itself "the oldest restaurant in the country" and is also his favorite place to eat in Boston. After greeting me with a big Texas "Hello" and a celebrity kiss on the cheek, Mr. Gatlin returns to his plate of oysters, dousing them with Tabasco.

But he still can't decide between the Cajun and fried shrimp. We end up cutting a deal: I get the Cajun, he gets the fried, and we'll share.

Gatlin is in town to talk about his starring role as Will Rogers in "The Will Rogers Follies," the Broadway musical at the Palace Theatre in New York. He's casually dressed in a light-blue shirt, the same color as his eyes, tan jeans, and red-white-and-blue cowboy boots with eagles on them.

The Follies is Gatlin's debut on Broadway, adding a new dimension to his longtime performing career in country music that includes 23 albums and a Grammy (awarded to Larry Gatlin and the Gatlin Brothers, his brothers Steve and Rudy) in 1976 for the song "Broken Lady."

Some of Gatlin's best-known songs include "All the Gold in California," "Houston," and "She Used to Be Somebody's Baby."

In his Texas accent, he can't say enough "wonderful" things about the musical that presents the life of the folk-philosopher Will Rogers as if told through the style of Ziegfeld Follies.

He calls his co-star Nancy Ringham "an absolutely wonderful lady;" choreographer Tommy Tune "the greatest choreographer in the American Theater," Willa Kim's costumes "wonderful....

"And I ... am in-credible," he finishes in crescendo, then smiles and pops a fried shrimp in his mouth. I tell him I was waiting for that.

From all his antics, one might misjudge Larry Gatlin at first. But more time spent with him reveals another side: one that is serious, religious, and thoughtful.

He reverently speaks about his role as Will Rogers: "The opportunity to go be him every night for three hours is one of the most unbelievably wonderful things that's ever happened to me.

"Will Rogers was a very unique individual," Gatlin explains. "You have to understand he was a man who was half-breed Cherokee Indian when half-breed Cherokee Indians weren't very well thought of in this country - [or] Indians period. And in the 56 years between his birth and his death he became the most recognizable human on the face of the earth. He worked, did his rope tricks, performed for, talked to, gave lectures for more people than any other human being before him. There's a line in the show that says `Not since the death of Abraham Lincoln had another death so affected this country.' He was just a fabulous human being."

The offer to play Will Rogers came at a good time for Gatlin, who took over for his friend Mac Davis in February (Keith Carradine originally starred).

After 37 years of touring, Gatlin and his brothers had decided to retire from the road. "It was killin' me," Gatlin says of all the travel. He quotes his friend Stephen Stills: "`I sing for free, they pay me to travel."'

Eight years ago, Gatlin got out of treatment for drugs and alcohol. "I tried with all of my power, my wit, my passion, my strength, my creativity, my devotion to my brothers and to our music; I tried as hard as I could to take our career - which was in the dumper - and rejuvenate it to where it was in the late '70s and early '80s.... We recorded music that I wrote that I thought was as good as I could write. And it never really came back. It never came back to that place that we thought it should have... ."

Also, in 1991, he underwent throat surgery and three months of recovery. "During all that time, I had time to think, and pray, and meditate, and search this divine restlessness that said: Larry, you've been doing the same thing for 39 years, it's time to stretch out."

He describes the "divine restlessness" he has been experiencing for the past few years as not necessarily dissatisfaction, but more of a process that involves searching and listening.

"I'm always curious about: `God, this is great, what else do you have for me?...' I believe that God is the director and I'm the actor, I believe that God is the coach and I'm the quarterback, or he is the manager and I'm the pitcher...."

When he and his brothers retired from the road, "We did not know what we were going to do. The opportunity presented itself to go to Branson, Mo., build a theater down there, sing three to five months a year in one place. Then the opportunity also came for me to do this [Will Rogers Follies], and I said `yes.' "

He says he's having a "large" time in New York, that the city's people have been very nice. Playing Will Rogers is only part of the reason for being on Broadway, though.

"The first half is for me to bring whatever artistic singing and acting that I can do. The other half of the reason - the great cosmic universal reason for me being there - is for my own enlightenment to learn to work with and around people whose politics are different than mine; whose personal lifestyles are different than mine.... Those of us who are a little bit to the right of center are very rare. You can live your beliefs without shoving them down somebody else's throat, and that's what I'm trying to do."

I ask him about country music's popularity today, and he answers quickly that he really knows nothing about it, that he doesn't think about it.

"I left Nashville six months ago and moved back home to Texas. I left because I had no more dreams in Nashville, Tenn. I dreamed them all up. Some came true exactly the way I wanted to and some didn't.... I have a lot of memories that I wouldn't take anything for - the nights sitting on the floor, passing a guitar around with Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Roger Miller, Willie Nelson, and Mickey Newbury, and you know - you can't take those away from me; they're precious to me. Those days are gone. They

are a memory.

"I believe that the quality of a man's life is directly proportional to his ability to make peace with his unfulfilled dreams."

What are his plans for the future?

"I'm gonna go get on the saddle and go to work. That's as far ahead as I plan," he says - realizing that he has to quickly eat his Boston cream pie and catch the shuttle back to New York for tonight's show.

"Now, I think there might be a Branson in my future ... kind of the senior golf tour of country music," he says, adding that his brothers are working on that right now. (They would perform four to six months in their own theater.)

He has also written a musical titled "Alive and Well" that will be performed at the Bristol Riverside Theater in Bristol, Pa., next year.

Gatlin totes a repertoire of quotations with him wherever he goes, most of which relate to experiences he has had. "The life which is unexamined is not worth living," he quotes Plato.

"I believe that," Gatlin says. "Every night before I go to bed, I examine - I grade Larry on where Larry screwed up. I ask for forgiveness and wisdom to do it better tomorrow. And where I've done well, I thank God for it."

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