April 19, 2017–Just out of high school, a group of my buddies and I were so anxious to see Crystal Gayle in person that we got a speeding ticket driving to her concert. The year was 1975 and Gayle, with her trademark long, dark hair, had just released her first album when we piled into my brother’s green 1968 Plymouth Fury III and drove to the Muscatine (Iowa) County Fair.
I shared that story with the country music superstar when I interviewed her in anticipation of her April 29 appearance at the Cailloux Theater. I also told how Conway Twitty peeked out from backstage during her set and waved to the crowd. She laughed a little tinkling laugh that you would expect from someone named Crystal Gale.
“Those were some great days,” she said, “The early days in my career were more fun than the craziness that came with all the success. Beginning the career and building it up were wonderful memories.”
Her career did build up. Shortly after we caught her at the county fair, she came out with Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue. That mega-hit propelled her to stardom. Over two decades on the charts she recorded six gold albums and 20 #1 hits, including I’ll Get Over You, Talking in Your Sleep, Ready For The Times To Get Better, and duets such as Just You And I.
Gayle was one of the pioneers of the crossover hit–not quite country, not quite pop, but a favorite of both types of fans.
“Sometimes it was called ‘slick country,’” she said. “I laugh at that now. Kenny Rogers and I sort of broke down a few barriers. I had people writing to me saying I never listened to country music before you–thank you for introducing me to a new style of music.
That idea of going Middle of the Road–or MOR in radio lingo–was not an accident. Gayle credits her big sister, Loretta, as in country music legend Loretta Lynn.
“When I started recording, Loretta said don’t sing any of my songs, and don’t record anything I would record. You do a little more of that thin line of country and pop. You go that route, because we don’t need another Loretta Lynn.”
“I don’t think I would have had the success I had if I hadn’t gone that route,” she said. “Besides, anytime I did record something that was a little country, they didn’t play it on the radio!”
In Gayle’s case, the market’s demand for adherence to one style denied the world the true range of her talent. She grew up singing among eight brothers and sisters in a family that had roots in the Kentucky coalmining region. She sang folk songs in junior high, performed with her high school choir, and on weekends played in her brother’s band. She still loves to sing the blues.
As many other top artists have told me, it’s less about the style than it is about the song.
“Nashville was and still is filled with great songwriters,” she said. “I always felt I was someone who could take their songs and record them and bring them to life.”
And how do you do that?
“You have to love the song, to feel the words, feel the meaning, and understand why they wrote it,” she said. “And you have to be a little bit of an actress. I always said if I had all the heartache I sang about I would be in poor shape!”
Gayle still tours 40-60 dates a year, and has a new album ready to release. Her response about travel revealed something about her personality.
“Travel can be rough. You try to make it as easy as you can. I look back when I flew everywhere commercially. You would leave every morning at 4 am to be at your next gig. I would not do that now. I definitely don’t want to be dragged off plane.”
That last comment referred to an incident in the news that week. I asked how she felt about artists speaking out on sensitive issues.
“I keep up with current events and I can voice my opinion very well,” she said. “But I don’t do it. You have to walk a little line. If I have strong opinions, I’m not going to lie about it, or if someone asks me. It’s not like you want to tell everyone what they should be doing, like a lot of the artists do…” She paused, then added with a laugh, “But… I could.”
In January Gayle was made a member of the Grand Ole Opry, an honor she is proud to hold even though it was a long time coming.
“It was actually my sister Loretta who came to the Opry that night at the Ryman and made me a member,” Gayle said. “It was very nice of her to come and do that. I always thought I was part of Opry family, and had performed there many nights and I never felt slighted. But now I have the papers. It was incredible!”
For her show in Kerrville, she and her band will play old songs, new songs, and hit songs. She’ll have stories, but it’s mostly about “going out and having a good time.”
“You know, we have fun,” she said. “I love talking to people who come to my show. I have made a lot of good friends throughout my career, and I’m always making new ones. Come on out and say hello.”
Just remember not to drive too fast getting there.
Crystal Gayle performs for one night only on Saturday, April 29, at 7:30 p.m. Ticket information at www.caillouxtheater.com or (830) 896-9393.