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Good ol’ boy Gatlin channels Will Rogers 

GATLIN: Is Will Rogers.
  • GATLIN: Is Will Rogers.

Larry Gatlin has been one of the most successful singers in country music, both with his brothers and as a solo act. But it’s been said that when he stepped into the costume of Will Rogers on Broadway in “The Will Rogers Follies: A Life in Revue,” it was a role he was born for.

“It was the most natural fit for me,” Gatlin said recently in a telephone interview. “The first time my feet hit the stage in 1993 at the Palace Theatre in New York, I knew it was something I was going to do the rest of my life.”

Well, “the rest of his life” is stretching it, as Gatlin admits, and he’s not “planning a whole lot of stuff for the rest of my life.” But, after playing Broadway and doing a national tour of the show in the 1990s and a six-city tour three years ago, he’s back as humorist and writer Will Rogers for 50 to 60 selected dates through early 2006.

Three of those are in Little Rock, as “The Will Rogers Follies” comes to Robinson Center Music Hall Tuesday through Thursday, Jan. 3-5, with shows at 7:30 each night. Tickets range from $20 to $54 through Celebrity Attractions (Third and Spring streets, 244-8800, www.celebrityattractions.com) and Ticketmaster (all Harvest Foods Stores, 975-7575, www.ticketmaster.com).

“I love doing this show. He was a wonderful man, he did some wonderful and benevolent things, was funny and here was a man with a third- or fourth-grade education and performed before more people than any human being in history,” Gatlin said. “That not only speaks to me of his courage and talent but of the basic American spirit.”

Gatlin sees the Will Rogers story as a metaphor for the Gatlin Brothers’ rise from simple beginnings in West Texas to becoming a huge act out of Nashville that appeared on “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson,” and performed at Carnegie Hall in New York and at the White House.

“Where else but America could Larry Gatlin be working as a waiter on the Gulf Freeway in Houston one night and in Elvis Presley’s dressing room the next,” he said. “I’m happy to be a red, white and blue American, and I think Will Rogers had lot of that about him. He took everything in stride and tried to push the envelope. Having a third-grade education and performing for presidents, that’s a mighty big deal.”

Gatlin, who grew up in Odessa — he LIVED the “Friday Night Lights” football story there, starring for a Texas state championship team — has settled in Austin and says “I’ll never move again.” From there he can get out as a solo act, or perform again with the Gatlin Brothers, who’ve been out on the road for the past five years (including 12 weeks a year in Branson). The Gatlin Brothers recently were nominated for a Grammy in the gospel category.

As Will Rogers did, Gatlin takes it all in stride.

“I’m a working man. That’s what I do. Singing is not who I am. Singing is what I do,” he said.

“I see some people who, bless their hearts, get so entangled in their jobs, especially entertainers, they get so enmeshed and cross-collateralized in their persona that they can’t tell the difference,” he said. “I looked at a People magazine yesterday, my wife was reading it, and all these famous people, some are just famous for being famous. You sure wouldn’t want to be in a lifeboat with them or lost in the woods.”

Gatlin sees performing as a “lunch-bucket job,” even if fans may see it as glamorous, not realizing what goes in to traveling town to town, eating hotel food, being up at 6 a.m. for the next trip the next day.

“Now, I’m grateful and love this job, and I’m grateful to God that I have it,” he said. “But while singing and making music is what I do, I’m Billie and Curlee’s son, Janice’s husband, my brothers’ brother, my kids’ dad. … That’s Larry Gatlin. I think I can separate who those people are pretty well. When I walk off that stage, I’m going to leave Will Rogers up there, but I’m going to be a good ol’ boy and I think he was a good ol’ boy, too.”

The all-singing-and-dancing “Will Rogers Follies,” which opened in 1991, has six Tony Awards to its credit, including Best Musical and Best Score by composer Cy Coleman and lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Gatlin’s Will Rogers hosts the biggest entertainment show of his day, the Ziegfield Follies, while telling the story of his life. He does that amid a bevy of beautiful girls, stunning sets and colorful costumes.

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