Brenda Gail Webb was, as the famous song says, born a coal miner’s daughter. But unlike her oldest sister, country music’s honky-tonk girl Loretta Lynn, who penned that tune about herself, Brenda’s music career would take much different trajectory.
The woman who would professionally become known as Crystal Gayle, famed for her floor-length tresses and warm, velvety vocal style, was one of the most successful country-pop crossover acts of the Seventies and Eighties. She scaled both charts with hits such as “Half the Way,” “Talking in Your Sleep” and the Number Two pop smash, “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue,” none of which could be mistaken for Loretta Lynn records. Initially signed in 1970 to the same label as her sister, Decca Records (which was already home to Brenda Lee, hence her name change), she would record more straight-ahead country material there, yet never managed any chart position higher than 23. Making the switch to United Artists in 1974 and teaming with songwriter-producer Allen Reynolds (who would later to go on to produce nearly every Garth Brooks album), Gayle’s songs would from that point on incorporate more pop elements. That same year, she had her first Top 10 hit with the ironically titled “Wrong Road Again.”
The right road, which she has continued to travel mostly straight down the middle her entire career, has made her an international superstar, and has never been obscured by her big sister’s looming, flamboyant shadow. Now, Gayle, born in Paintsville, Kentucky, in 1951 and raised in Wabash, Indiana, is the subject of a spotlight exhibit at Nashville’s Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. Featuring her numerous awards, special stage wear, a custom-made Barbie doll, an F-16 flight suit and childhood gifts she made for her mom, the “Crystal Gayle: When I Dream” exhibit also offers a look at what she was like before her flowing locks became such a trademark, thanks to a school picture where she sports a closely cropped look resembling that of a boy’s cut. Running through November 3rd, the museum’s exhibit also demonstrates just how much she’s been influenced not only by country music, but also by jazz, pop standards and the “middle-of-the-road” sound that earned her a whole new audience by the late Seventies.
Rolling Stone Country joined Gayle at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum to talk about the artifacts she chose to put on display, her first Grand Ole Opry appearance, sibling rivalries and the life-changing event that sent her to “a stern German doctor.”
What were some of the highlights for you in gathering items for the exhibit?
The best part for me was just going through things that I had kept forever. I can’t believe I did all that. I’m tired. [Laughs] Finding the pink velvet dress with sequins on it that belonged to Loretta — it was a hand-me-down. When she was finished with her stage wear, she would hand it over to my sister Peggy and me. We were in junior high and singing around different places around town. So, seeing that brought back different memories: Mom making it fit us better, because Loretta is longer-waisted than I am, so she’d have to take it in here and there. I ran across a letter that I had written my husband. We weren’t married at the time. It was my first trip to New York. I put that in there [even though] it was personal.
The flight suit must bring back some great memories?
I was on tour with Kenny Rogers around 1984-85. There was a little girl who had a brain tumor. It was for Make-a-Wish. Her father was a trainer pilot for the F-16s. He got it cleared so that I could go up. But she had already passed away by this time. We buzzed Disney World and sang “Happy Birthday,” because her two favorite things were Disney World and Crystal Gayle. It was a wonderful memory. I see her parents every now and then. When I did that flight I had no idea it was a fighter plane. I always think back to as they’re putting the flight suit on me and giving me this helmet with a mask and I can’t breathe. I’m in turmoil inside, but it was great.
Why do you think your hits were able to cross over so well from country to pop and adult contemporary?
Music is universal, it’s healing. And I think maybe [it was also] the register of my voice that crossed boundaries. We went to Korea in 2008 for the Flower Power Peace Festival. It was a three-day festival with Don McLean and Melanie. I didn’t ever know that the biggest song there was “When I Dream.” When I started singing it, all these lights went on everywhere! It was incredible. We went to the DMZ. They kept saying, “Do not take pictures facing that way [toward North Korea].” When we left there, we got back and I think the next week there was a lady that got shot and killed because she wandered over in their area. What happened to people that their brain has to be so different than ours? They don’t have a lot over there, so you’d think they’d be a lot more mellow.
You’ll be performing a rare show together with Loretta next month at her ranch in Hurricane Mills. Was there ever any sort of sibling rivalry between the two of you?
We were never together enough! She probably stayed on the road 10 times more than I would. She was constantly gone. We never had time to have problems. But I would read about it all the time that we’re fighting over this or that. She would do Ralph Emery’s TV show and say, “Crystal is mad at me because I recorded this album with Tammy and Dolly.” [Laughs] I wasn’t mad at her, I thought that was neat. But that’s what would happen. You would hear little things, and I would say, “Hey, Loretta, what did you mean by that?” It happens, were sisters. The only time we ever really had words was when Mom was dying. I think that’s normal because you’ve got so many emotions. But it wasn’t something that stuck with us or anything major. It was just the turmoil of your mother dying. And I’m sure she was laying there saying, “I’m gonna spank you both…. “
And everyone deals with grief differently.
When my dad died, I developed a nervous habit. He was very shy and quiet, and I was like him. Where Loretta is more flamboyant, I went into a shell. In Loretta’s book, she says she dreamed of him dying and she would be wringing her hands. Well, that was me. In real life, when she came back for the funeral, that was me standing there doing the wringing of the hands. My mother took me to the doctor because it affected me. It was more internal. I didn’t sit there and just cry, cry, cry. But it did hit me inside. He told me to quit. He was this stern German doctor… and I quit. [Laughs] I think I needed that father figure to tell me to quit.
“Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue” was Number One 37 years ago but it still sounds fresh. Why do you think that is?
Richard Leigh wrote that song and it was just so well-written. It’s a timeless song and I always say I’m glad I got a hold of it. Because that song they were getting ready to send it to California for Shirley Bassey. Allen Reynolds went to Richard’s house to hear some of the new songs that Richard had written. I never thought it was for here, for Nashville. When he played it for Allen, Allen said, “You’re not sending it anywhere. We almost didn’t get it. That was a live take, what you hear on the radio. Allen put a few strings on it, but that was a live band.
Did you feel any backlash being a country artist played on pop radio?
The only backlash I would get is every once in while you would see an article and it would say “slick country.” Kenny [Rogers] would get locked into that as well. But we’re more country now than anything being played [on country radio]. I went middle-of-the-road because Loretta said, “Don’t sing my songs and don’t sing anything I would sing, because you’ll be compared.” She was right. I wouldn’t have made it if I had just done that. But I love those songs.
What are you working on now, musically?
I’m doing a couple of different things, but one is songs that inspired me as a kid: “Please Help Me, I’m Falling,” “Ribbon of Darkness,” which was the first song I sang on the Opry. I was about 15-16. I got to sing on the Opry because Loretta got sick and she somehow talked them into letting me take her place. I’ve always wanted to find somebody who may have been at that show and had taken a picture. I know I wore the shiny silver dress my mother made me. The Opry was great; I’d roam the back halls with Ernest Tubb’s daughter and son. We go up into the rafters, places where we weren’t supposed to be. We would see Jim Reeves. I remember being there when Roy Rogers and Dale Evans came through. They were backstage. I thought, “Wow, this is cool.”