Several times while listening to Larry Gatlin & The Gatlin Brothers’ newest CD, Pilgrimage, I got chills. Six times on the album, all track titles beginning with “The Pilgrim,” Mr. Gatlin (Larry, who’s backup singers are brothers Steve and Rudy) tells stories from friendships and time periods shared with the likes of Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Willie, Waylon and some of the musicians I look up to most.
I, too, have shared special moments with these cowboys, but it’s cool to hear about the interactions from one of the cowboys himself. Kristofferson and Kristen Kara, Larry Gatlin’s daughter, team up to sing backup on a newer version of “Sweet Becky Walker,” which was the eldest Gatlin brother’s first big hit.
The second bonus track on this disk, track 3, was in my top three for the album and might have been my favorite, “Penny Annie.” Along with “Sweet Becky Walker,” “Penny Annie” is from early in Gatlin’s career, and was written during the life and times of Johnny Cash.
From track 1 of Pilgrimage, Larry Gatlin speaks about some of Cash’s words in the liner notes of Gatlin’s first album, The Pilgrim.
“And now along comes this Pilgrim, Larry Gatlin. He’s kind of a proud banner bearer, and the banner ain’t his own. The Pilgrim has his heart for sale and soul in his songs, and the price is mighty cheap. He shared some of these songs with me, even on the day that he wrote them. I wish you could have looked down his throat with me the first time I heard him sing ‘Sweet Becky Walker’ and ‘Penny Annie.’ You would have seen soul and heard heart, and felt fine.”
After the first two songs – and like most music it’s an injustice to put a label on it, but it’s necessary to give those unfamiliar with the artist an idea – it’s a combination of country, folk and gospel, and what sticks out to me is Gatlin’s skill as a storyteller.
One particularly chilling track is “The Pilgrim: Little Tin Cup” in which Gatlin tells the story of his son’s birth, Joshua Cash Gatlin. So the story goes that Gatlin runs out of the delivery room and calls Johnny before anyone else, and Cash and June Carter were the first to show up. Johnny presented the son with a letter “he’d just written, and a little tin cup. The letter read, ‘If you’ll drink from the cup of Christ, you’ll never drink from the likes of this tin cup that I got from Folsom Prison.’”
That’s quite a story, although Gatlin’s telling of the story requires you to look past the dramatics of his voice that he uses to reenact the exchange (his boy “just discovered America”). But hey, if that’s how the exchange took place, I can’t blame him for this, it just makes the cynic wonder.
Pilgrimage reminds me of sitting around listening to the older country singers I mentioned above that my brother Josh and I both liked to listen to while sitting around in our college home, sharing beers and passing the evening with friends we’d never met.
I find this album a joy to listen to and a fresh peek back into my favorite country music time period. It’s produced, fittingly enough, by John Carter Cash.