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Gatlins still got it: Country trio coming to SD State Fair

The Gatlin Brothers, from left: Steve, Larry and Rudy Gatlin. (Publicity image)

The Gatlin Brothers may not top the country charts like they did in the 1980s, but Rudy Gatlin figures guys with gray hair still have plenty to say.

The Gatlins -- lead singer Larry, 65, high tenor Rudy, 61, and baritone bass Steve, 62 -- will take center stage Friday at the South Dakota State Fair, featuring trademark tight harmonies that reflect their beginnings in worship music. Marty Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives will begin the show at 7 p.m. at the State Fair grandstand, with the Gatlins playing at about 8:30.

Rudy took time out from a busy schedule in July to talk with The Daily Republic from what he described as "Dallas, America -- the center of the known universe -- where we want for nothing, except for maybe a little more air conditioning."

The Gatlins' 50-year career as a trio had its beginnings at home.

Raised on gospel music in Abilene, Texas, the Gatlins moved from early church performances in their boyhood years to guest appearances on the Slim Willet radio and local TV shows.

Larry Gatlin hit the country music scene big in 1972, displaying songwriting and vocal talents that drew the attention of the music industry.

The 1973 hit album "The Pilgrim" confirmed that attention.

That was enough for Larry to reactivate the old brother act and bring his two siblings in to sing backup. By 1974, the brothers has been inducted into Nashville's Grand Ole Opry.

Rudy -- the tallest of the trio in photos -- still prefers Texas, but brothers Larry and Steve have been Nashville residents for years. Steve, it should be noted, is a celebrated photographer as well as a singer.

The group hit its popularity peak in the late '70s and early '80s with tunes such as "Statues without Arms," "Broken Lady," and their biggest hit, "All the Gold in California."

Still in demand, the brothers decided with their 1992 Adios Tour to call it a career.

Larry headed off to New York and Broadway to play the lead in the hit musical "The Will Rogers Follies," and Rudy took his turn with the Broadway genre playing leads in revivals of the musicals "Oklahoma!" and "Annie Get Your Gun."

"We just all went our separate ways for a while," Rudy said. "We got back together again at a theater we bought in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina."

They sold the theater in 1998 and took another break from performing. In 2001, a promoter convinced the group they still had an audience, and they hit the road once more.

"We probably still do 60 to 70 dates a year -- maybe a little more-- but we've done the South Dakota State Fair during our heyday, and we played also a bunch of other state fairs. We just love South Dakota in the summertime."

Rudy said performers have learned to accept that the music industry has morphed in some ways, but has remained unchanged in other ways.

"We're back to a singles driven-market," he said. "Today iTunes is the modern equivalent of going to the record store in the old days and purchasing that 45 RPM hit single with the big hole in the middle."

For a time, digital file sharing threatened the livelihood of musicians, but that has been brought under better control. Rudy believes it was a matter of education.

"Kids didn't understand copyright laws," he said. "They thought they were just sharing a file and nobody needs to get paid. Now things are fine and royalties accrue to the artist."

The Gatlins don't depend on their limited digital sales to make a living.

"That's because we don't have hit records," Rudy said. "In this business, it doesn't matter how good you are, who your management is or what your record label is; hit records have always been the deal, and always will be the deal -- period. Hits opened a whole lot of doors for the Gatlin boys."

The digital revolution has also opened the doors for a lot of new young talent.

"It used to be only a handful of artists would break in a year -- now it seems there's 20 a week."

Rudy also doesn't believe that modern lyrics compare well with musical classics.

"I don't think most songs have the quality of the songs we had between the '60s and the '80s," he said.

The brothers still enjoy touring and a new pro-America song, "Americans, That's Who," has proven a hit with audiences.

Each show has its own pace.

"We'll do some hits, then throw in a few misses, so they appreciate the hits," Rudy said with a laugh.

So what has he learned in 61 years?

"Not much," he joked, then reconsidered.

"We've learned a lot, experienced a lot. We do know that God's in his heaven and we're down here doin' the best we can.

"One of these days it really isn't going to matter because we'll be over on the other side of the river lookin' back and wondering, 'Why did I ever worry about that?' "