A number of country artists — Marty Stuart, T.G. Sheppard and several Oak Ridge Boys, among them — could only watch helplessly as flames engulfed the structure, which had been purchased from the Cash family by the Bee Gees’ Barry Gibb. A couple of songwriters, Monty Holmes and Leslie Satcher, were inspired by the blaze to write “House Of Cash,” a Patty Loveless duet that appeared on George Strait’s award-winning Troubadour album. And Larry Gatlin turned the disaster into a statement about the changing nature of country music, “Johnny Cash Is Dead (And His House Burned Down).”
With a strong rockabilly backbone, “Johnny Cash Is Dead” borrowed the melody from the Man In Black’s “Big River” and recalled the impact of such classic-country stars as Marty Robbins, Patsy Cline and Waylon Jennings. And it sort of accepted that modern country music is not the same as the old brand of the genre — just as modern pop and rock are completely different than in the Beatles’ era.
“The way it happened, my son says, ‘Daddy, what’s wrong with country music?’” says Larry, recounting the song’s evolution. “I said, ‘Nothin’ wrong with it. It’s just different.’ I said, ‘We gotta understand Nashville will never be the same, country music will never be the same. I mean, after all, Johnny Cash is dead and his house burned down.’ And to me that [fire] was a seminal moment. That was kind of a changing of the guard.”
“Johnny Cash Is Dead” was released last year as a single to reintroduce the Gatlin Brothers as Larry, Steve and Rudy issued Pilgrimage, their first album in 17 years. Like the song says, the landscape has changed significantly, and the single never did find its way to the top of the charts. But it was certainly well-received among fans with a traditional bent, and Larry was happy with the attention it did obtain.
“We knew going in, it was tough sledding because of the dynamics of the world,” Larry shrugs. “[That’s] the way it is. So I’m not complaining, I’m grateful for it for whatever it is, you know. I guess my next wish is that somebody would hear it and say, ‘Hey, that’s viable, that’s right. I’m gonna do it’ — a [Kenny] Chesney or somebody who can get on country radio, ‘cause it’s gonna take a miracle to get the Gatlin boys on there. And I don’t know what that miracle is.”
Don’t for a second think that Larry’s feeling sorry for himself. He was a friend of Johnny Cash, and making a personal statement about a departed friend and a music he loves was more important to Larry than any commercial success the song might have had.
“Hey, I’m not bitter,” he says. “I’m disappointed that it didn’t take off and do stuff, but I’m still alive. I’m on this side of the dirt, I don’t have any tubes in my body, so it’s a pretty good day. I checked this morning first thing — no tubes, good day.”
Larry is hosting 11 installments this year of the Grand Ole Opry’s Thursday night Opry Country Classics shows at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium.