Sure, Crystal Gayle got her first touring experiences and initial recording contract through her big sister Loretta Lynn, but those opportunities came with certain limitations.
“I couldn’t do the real country songs because I’d be compared to Loretta,” she says. “It wasn’t because I didn’t like country, because I love it. But when I did record and release a country song, radio didn’t play it.”
Instead, Gayle scored blockbuster hits with ballads and mid-tempo songs that swelled with jazz-pop sophistication, like “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue.”
Her new spotlight exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, titled When I Dream, neatly summarizes her life and gestures toward the breadth of her musical career. During an interview and performance at the museum, she glided through compositions by Hoagy Carmichael, Tom Waits and her sister. She also made a point to mention a back-to-roots country album she has in the works.
Now more than ever, it appears, Gayle gets to do all the music she loves.
CMT Edge: People sometimes assume that you and Loretta experienced the same sort of Butcher Holler childhood, the one that she’s so closely identified with. Your new exhibit is a reminder that you had very different childhoods and a large enough age difference between you to almost be from separate generations.
Gayle: It was, definitely, with me being the last out of eight children. Because the mines closed, we had to find work other places. Dad actually tried to go find work in Wabash [Indiana] and couldn’t. And then that’s when mom said, “Let me give it a try.” She went and found work at a restaurant and then as a nurse. And she sent for us.
One of the artifacts you provided the museum was a school photo of you with your hair cropped short like a little boy’s. I didn’t expect to see that.
(laughs) I have better looking pictures as a kid. I ran across that and I showed it to Mick [Buck, the museum curatorial director] and he said, “I want to use that!”
Your name not only brings a sound to mind but also an image, and your long hair is a big part of it. What was the thought process behind your signature look?
I went through a time where I really didn’t care about the hair, the look, and that was in junior high, high school. That’s when it got longer. Because there’s a stage when you have long hair that you can’t do anything with — for me, anyway, because I’m not really good at fixing hair. (laughs) And that’s why I had long hair. I could wash it and let it dry.
When I started recording, that was easy on the road. My sister Loretta would tell me, “Why don’t you cut your hair? Style it. Do something.” … And I said, “Well, I can’t fix hair.” And I definitely couldn’t afford someone to do it. It wasn’t something where I said, “OK, I’m gonna have long hair, and I’m gonna have people know me by long hair.” It was just something that I could deal with.
I’ve found interview clip after interview clip where the topic of conversation is your hair. At what point did you realize that it had become a part of your image?
I think when I first had that success with “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue.” When your songs put you out there more, then that’s when they put a face with a name. You have long hair, so you were known as the girl with the long hair.
During your Hall of Fame event, Mick Buck played a demo you’d recorded at age 16 to give us a feel for what you sounded like at that age and the way your punchy phrasing was reminiscent of Loretta’s. You said, “I listen to that, and I understand why Loretta told me to quit singing her songs.” You got a lot of early professional opportunities because of her, but when did you realize it was necessary to separate your identity as a performer from hers?
When I look back at that time of being on the same label, I mean, you could feel it — that it was time to move on — because you knew you were there because they were doing your sister a favor. And that’s great. I love it that she got my foot into the door.
It didn’t take long to realize that I needed to find people who believed in me. Lynn Shults, Larry Butler and all these others believed in me at United Artists Records. I was lucky that they put me with [producer] Allen Reynolds.
There’s a great deal of poise and professionalism to your vocal delivery and stage presence, some of it suggesting the influence of jazz, pop and soft rock. What were you taking in while you developed as a performer?
When I was recording, I really didn’t try to listen to a whole lot of other people because I wanted to interpret the songs my way. I grew up listening to Brenda Lee, Lesley Gore, Patsy Cline, my sister, the swing groups.
As I said, listening to the demo tapes of my voice when I was young, I heard my sister. I heard her helping me with the songs because I was singing like she would sing the songs. Being able to work with Allen, he helped me learn the songs in the way that I would sing them because I didn’t have her voice there singing them to me.
Mick brought up the soundtrack for One From the Heart, on which you served as Tom Waits’ vocal foil. The movie was set in Las Vegas, you had a smoky jazz combo backing you and the originals Waits wrote for the project felt like jazz and pop standards. How did that experience shape what you wanted to do going forward?
I loved working with Tom. And I really thought, “OK, I’m going to go into a setting that I’m not comfortable with because I love singing. … And if he has the confidence in me, then I can do it.” He did, and it worked well.
Being a singer, I’m never opposed to trying something different. Different people asked me to sing on their songs through the years, and I’d do it. I love my song with Johnny Russell. Charlie Louvin. It was fun to be able to step out from what you were doing and do something with someone else.
The jazz-inflected band that plays with you now, in some ways, isn’t all that different from the one that backed you on the soundtrack.
Well, you’d be amazed. Nashville is full of some fantastic players that play everything. Buddy Spicher, who you think of as a country fiddle player, plays jazz, as well. Buddy’s traveled the road with me. I’d have a band that could go from “Rocky Top” to [Billie Holiday’s] “God Bless the Child.” That’s what I like having out with me is people who love the music — and are not snobs.
About a decade ago, you did an album of Hoagy Carmichael material that showcased your abilities as an interpreter of standards. What’s so appealing about singing that sort of material after you’ve had a considerable amount of time to really get to know your voice?
Doing songs like those particular songs is [appealing] because they are songs that don’t have a boundary — and what I mean is, they’re timeless. … The way they’re written, they don’t write like that anymore.