Like any veteran musician, Larry Gatlin has done his share of complaining about the rigors of traveling, the stress of being away from friends and family and the pressure of trying to continue producing hit records.
But not any more. Ever since the Texas-born singer and songwriter emerged from a drug and alcohol rehabilitation program at the Careunit Hospital in Orange 18 months ago, Gatlin has a new perspective about life's hardships.
In a phone interview Wednesday from Vallejo, Calif., where the Gatlin Brothers had performed at the Solano County Fair the previous night, Gatlin, 38, said, "I could holler and moan about the pressures of the music business, but the fact is we're all under a lot of pressure. Mine is no different than anybody else's.
"You want to know what pressure is? Pressure is the car mechanic in Oakland who has no job and has four kids. I just got into some stuff that I didn't know about until after it had me by the throat. But I've been sober now for 600 days and I thank God."
News that Gatlin had undergone drug abuse treatment took many fans by surprise, since the Gatlins project a wholesome, family image that has made the group a popular attraction at county fairs as well as at nightclubs and concert halls. Larry and his younger brothers Steve and Rudy have been hired to play tonight's opening concert of the 94th Orange County Fair in Costa Mesa.
His musical roots in traditional gospel and country, Larry Gatlin has worn his love for God and country on his sleeve, which may have helped him retain the loyalty of longtime fans.
"I have not heard one discouraging word from anyone," Gatlin said. "It's pretty hard for somebody to gripe when you come out and say, 'I've made a mistake, I'm sorry and I want to do better.' People are not going to beat you up when you deal with them like that.
"Some people don't understand how a guy can get to the point where he lives for his next gram of cocaine or bottle of vodka. People have said, 'But that's illegal.' Well, so is driving 56 miles an hour--they just have different ramifications. I think the fans do understand me as a person. We're all just human, and I believe God isn't going to give us more than we can handle."
He admitted that for a time he was looking anywhere but at himself for the cause of personal and professional slumps. The group's last No. 1 single, "Houston (Means I'm One Day Closer To You)," came in 1983, while their 1985 album "Smile" reached only No. 35 on Billboard's country album charts.
"We haven't had a really big hit in three or four years, country music is on the decline, the economy has been bad," he said. "After two or three years like that you start clutching at straws, looking for a scapegoat. But eventually you've got to say, 'The buck stops here. I am responsible'."
He is confident that the Gatlins' forthcoming album "Partners," due in September, will spark new momentum in the group's career. "It's the best we've ever done. It's back to Gatlins' music. We'd strayed away from that for a while, but I'm not going to let that happen again."
Even though Gatlin now says he has "no gripes" about his life, that doesn't mean he has no complaints about the business side of country music, which has steadily dropped since its popularity peaked during the "Urban Cowboy" fad of the early '80s.
"The record companies killed the goose that laid the golden egg," he said. "When I first moved to Nashville (in 1972), artists ran the labels. Then the record companies realized it was big business and all the lawyers started running things.
"The biggest mistake was having non-music people make musical decisions. I was at my record company (Columbia) and looked around the office and noticed there wasn't one person who has sung, written, played on, produced or had anything to do with a hit record.
"But there are signs that things are beginning to change. I think they are realizing promotion men shouldn't be the ones picking singles or telling musicians how to record. They do a great job and I respect their efforts in selling records, but should leave the music to the artists."
The last week has been "an emotional roller coaster ride" for Gatlin, who performed on July 3 for President Reagan, French President Francois Mitterrand and tens of millions of television viewers for the Statue of Liberty festivities in New York. A few days later he went back to Odessa, Tex., for his 20-year high school reunion, after which he joined his brothers in Vallejo for the Solano County Fair.
Yet, Gatlin said he doesn't mind moving constantly from small clubs to county fairs to large concert halls that is common on the Gatlins' 200-shows-per-year schedule.
"Some people can just go out and work three or four months a year, but not us," he said. "We've had most of this year off, we've been in the studio recording--now it's time to get back out and make a living.
In addition to their performance at the fair tonight, the Gatlins will return to Orange County for shows July 28-29 at the Crazy Horse Steak House in Santa Ana and in September will headline the Inglewood Forum.
"It does get a little harder with the years," he said, "but I don't have any gripes. I used to complain, but now I just go out and sing. If people don't like it any more, then we'll get into something else. But so far they haven't gotten to that point."