October 03, 1977 12:00 PM

For country singers bred in the Bible Belt, the only thing that separates church from state—musically, that is—is puberty. When he was only 6, little Larry Gatlin and his littler brothers Steve and Rudy, 4 and 2, were the kind of shiveringly harmonious gospel trio (they were later joined by sister LaDonna) who could make the sawdust trail a highway.

Nowadays Gatlin, 29, and his brothers are still packin’ ’em in—but the joints are trading less in sin than suds. “Rudy,” Larry bellows at his brother during a typical show, “you gotta wear them tight Glen Campbell britches to hit those high notes.” Bothered by cigarette smoke, Gatlin hollers for “some Murine to shoot up.” Their choreography, he drawls, “is by Jack Daniel’s.” His boots, he scoffs, are “the best thing in the act.”

Gatlin’s down-to-red-clay stage manner makes him either the most affectingly casual C&W singer this side of Kris Kristofferson—or, as one dyspeptic reviewer complained, “an unsufferable stage presence.” Gatlin once booted several stoned rowdies from Manhattan’s Lone Star Café (“Five dollars don’t entitle a fan to come in and ruin our shows”) and makes no apologies for his lack of flash. “I got no claws or white eyeshadow, and women don’t throw their babies, panties or room keys onstage for me,” he erupts. “I been accused of being an egotistical bastard, but if they’re gonna hand out certificates and keep score in this game I wanna win like anyone else.”

The scorekeeping these days is done by the Country Music Association, which has nominated Gatlin (against Waylon Jennings, Don Williams et al) for the 1977 Male Vocalist of the Year award at the Oct. 10 telecast. Hitherto, Larry’s only chance might have been as Best Male Writer. He has composed songs for the likes of Johnny Cash and Glen Campbell, and Elvis featured a Gatlin song on each of his last six albums. But Gatlin sang his own Broken Lady last year—and won a Grammy—and his current Love Is Just a Game follows two straight No. 1 country hits this year.

The son of an itinerant Texas oil driller, Gatlin was born in Seminole (pop. 5,009) but wound up in Odessa (pop. 78,380). He went to the University of Houston on a football-baseball scholarship based, he now jokes, on “my deceptive speed: I was slower than they thought.” After a semester of law school, Gatlin split for Vegas to try out his rich baritone with Elvis’ backup group. Instead, he wound up back in Texas as a lonely solo act making countless one-nighters in “honky-tonks with 25¢ covers and 16-drink minimums.”

Larry didn’t find artistic peace until his performing reunion with his brothers, who once backed Tammy Wynette but now record and tour with Gatlin. (Sister LaDonna has resettled in Texas.) “Their phrasing and breathing are as molecularly close to mine as any could be,” says Gatlin, who turns his sentiment into a joke: “We do what you might call agrarian punk music.”

Home is the Nashville suburb of Antioch, where Larry relaxes over his favorite fried bologna and cheese sandwiches with his wife, Janis, and their daughter, Kristen, 4, and son, Joshua, 1. He golfs with former Texas football coach Darrell Royal, now athletic director of the University of Texas. But the Assembly of God religion is not entirely banished from Gatlin’s secularized life. “I know this is not in vogue for a 29-year-old man to say,” he ventures, “but I was meant by God to write and sing with my brothers. Not just to entertain but to move and touch people’s hearts.”

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