As country singers go, Crystal Gayle has long been a sparkling diamond in a rhinestone world. While the singer’s recently released You Don’t Know Me beautifully showcases her elegant, middle-of-the-road vocal delivery — a quality that led her to become one of the most successful crossover artists of the late Seventies — the record also pays homage to Gayle’s deep, abiding connection to vintage country music.
In the process, it becomes a heartwarming family affair as well. That family includes two sisters who co-wrote a country classic, “Don’t Come Home a-Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind),” and who are both featured on the LP: Country Music Hall of Famer Loretta Lynn and fellow hitmaker Peggy Sue Wright. Together, the three siblings perform an emotional, harmony-rich rendition of “Put It Off Until Tomorrow,” a song written by Dolly Parton and her uncle Bill Owens.
“Loretta, Peggy, and I would sing on the shows that we worked together,” Gayle tells Rolling Stone Country during an afternoon conversation at the Music Row office building that bears her name. “We did Reno, Tahoe, different shows, and we had several songs that we would sing, and that was one. We sang it like it was ours. Loretta would sing lead. I would do the low alto, and Peggy would do the high. I wish I’d actually recorded every song we had done on the road because when Loretta came in to do ‘Put It Off’ [for You Don’t Know Me], her next question was, ‘What’s next?’ It was like she was having fun with it. And that was the year before her stroke.”
Unlike Lynn, who was raised in Butcher Hollow, Kentucky, near Paintsville, Gayle was raised mainly in Wabash, Indiana. She married her high-school sweetheart, Bill Gatzimos, in 1970, the same year she made her debut on Decca Records with “I’ve Cried the Blue (Right Out of My Eyes),” penned by her sister Loretta. In 1977, with “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue,” Gayle topped the country chart and peaked at Number 2 on the U.S. pop chart behind Debby Boone’s “You Light Up My Life.” The single was an international hit as well and Gayle followed it up with more pop crossovers like “Talking in Your Sleep,” “Half the Way,” and “You and I,” a 1982 duet with Eddie Rabbitt.
While she has sung material by some of music’s greatest tunesmiths, including on a 1999 tribute LP to Hoagy Carmichael, You Don’t Know Me is Gayle shining a light on the best of country music songwriting. She interprets songs by Cindy Walker (the heart-wrenching title cut), Hank Williams (“You Win Again”), and Willie Nelson (“Hello Walls”). There’s also a version of “You Were Never Mine,” written by her late brother Jay Lee Webb, with whom Gayle first lived when she moved to Nashville.
“I should have done it a long time ago, while he was still alive,” she says of recording the song by Webb, who worked closely with Loretta at the start of her career. “He drove the car, he opened the show. I don’t know when he slept, really. Because then they’d get in the car, drive to the next venue. He did that for a long, long time.”
Just as Jay Lee’s relationship with his older sister was an easy talking point in his early career, Gayle often found herself publicized as Lynn’s “baby sister.” But it was clear when she sang that the two didn’t sound anything alike.
“The best was ‘Loretta Lynn’s Baby Sitter,’” she says with a laugh, recalling a misspelled marquee. “That was in a little bar I was playing in Chicago. I’d have people come up to me, saying, ‘We have a bet going. So-and-so says you’re Loretta Lynn’s sister, and I say you’re not.’ I’d say, ‘Well, I’m her sister.’ [They’d say,] ‘You don’t sound like her!’ I had the Kentucky accent, then we [moved] to Indiana … and then I came to Tennessee and I didn’t know what I had, to tell the truth.”
In 2016, Gayle was invited to join the Grand Ole Opry by another singer with crossover appeal, Carrie Underwood. She said yes, of course, and was officially inducted the following year by her sister Loretta.
But it’s her first appearance on the Opry stage that she’ll never forget. Just a teenager then, Gayle filled in for an ailing Lynn after her husband Doolittle petitioned the Opry to let Gayle take her place. She sang Gordon Lightfoot’s “Ribbon of Darkness,” a 1965 chart-topper that she revisits on You Don’t Know Me, which was produced by Gayle’s son Chris Gatzimos.
“I was 16 or 17, somewhere in that age, and I was scared to death,” says Gayle, now 68. “I still have the dress that I wore. Mom made it for me, a little silver dress.”