Flying home from a gig sometime five or six years ago, Larry Gatlin read what he called “a wonderful story” about John Steinbeck, as told by one of his sons.
That son remembered waking up every morning to the sound of pencils sharpening. But it wasn’t just one pencil or even 10. It was close to 100 Palomino Blackwing 602 pencils, a brand made notorious by artists like Steinbeck who swore by them.
Gatlin, at that point a Grammy Award-winning songwriter, was moved by the story, especially considering how Steinbeck has played into his storied songwriting career. He bought a few of the pencils and, speaking with the News&Guide, had one sitting with him on his Nashville, Tennessee, porch.
“I give them to young songwriters,” said Gatlin, who teaches songwriting master classes.
He noted how hard it is to sharpen a Palomino pencil. The point usually breaks off because it’s so sharp, but “that’s when the magic starts flowing through,” he said.
“I believe there is something mystical about a Palomino Blackwing 602 pencil gliding across a piece of white paper,” Gatlin said.
Gatlin, who will play Monday night’s “Silver Dollar Showroom Session,” is a storyteller. And he’s been telling stories for decades as the principle songwriter for Larry, Steve and Rudy: The Gatlin Brothers (formerly Larry Gatlin and the Gatlin Brothers).
With 18 albums in the bag between the three of them, Gatlin said he “wrote every song” he and his brothers performed “except for two, and I can’t tell you what those are. That’s just not what we do.”
What he could talk about, however, was how rare it is for him to play solo. Gatlin and his brothers used to play with a full backing band.
But at smaller venues it became difficult to make the full band arrangement work, so the Gatlins tried performing as a trio, which caught on. Now, they’re five or six years established with the new setup, and Larry Gatlin has decided to pick up a few solo gigs like the “Showroom Session.”
He said he “didn’t know much” about the show but is excited to be coming out.
“I know it’s in Jackson Hole, and I know that’s one of my favorite places and I haven’t been there for 20 years,” Gatlin said. “I’m coming, I’m gonna sing my little songs about doggies and horses and shake some hands.”
But in his phone interview Gatlin was being somewhat self-effacing. He was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame on Monday, making it hard to write his work off as “little songs about doggies and horses.” He has penned songs first recorded with his brothers and others that were later covered by Moe Bandy, Johnny Cash and Barbra Streisand, among others.
Elvis Presley recorded one of the songwriter’s gospel songs, “Help Me.”
“He lowered the microphone and sang the whole song on his knees with his hands raised to God,” Gatlin said. “That’s kind of a chilling, humbling moment.”
But Gatlin said having people like Presley sing his songs would never have happened if it weren’t for people like Steinbeck. And he wouldn’t have known about Steinbeck had people like Anne Louise Jones, his high school English teacher from Odessa, Texas, not assigned him an extra credit project about the author’s novel “The Grapes of Wrath.”
Years later, Gatlin was driving through Los Angeles and got stuck outside the Hollywood Bowl. In front of him, there was a ’58 Mercury station wagon with Oklahoma plates.
“There were kids hanging out the window — boxes, pots and pans, suitcases stuffed, tied on top,” Gatlin said. “And since I have no internal dialogue, I said out loud, ‘Larry, these poor Okies are coming from Oklahoma to California to try to get rich.’”
They reminded him of the Joad family from “The Grapes of Wrath.” Gatlin continued talking to himself, saying “They’re going to find out all too soon that all the gold in California is in a bank in the middle of Beverly Hills, in somebody else’s name.”
A few minutes later he got out of the car, scribbled that thought down, along with a few other lyrics, and ran into a meeting. Later, he and his brothers recorded the song, “All the Gold in California.” It peaked at No. 1 on Billboard’s “Hot Country Songs” chart on Oct. 20, 1979, almost exactly 40 years before his scheduled Monday night “Showroom Session.”
And, now, at this stage in his life, Gatlin said his goal is the same as always.
“My job as a songwriter and an entertainer is to do just that — to entertain people, to inspire people, to uplift people, to make them laugh a lot, maybe cry a little, and to make a lot of money,” Gatlin said.
He has no plans to slow down.
“I’m going to keep making music until the day I die, as long as I can do quality,” he said. ￼