We'll never get over her
With such a long career under her renowned pelt, country music icon Crystal Gayle’s bit of time off since 2020 is just a blip on her touring record. This September, she gave her first three performances since the onset of the pandemic, and is headed to the Brauntex Theatre in New Braunfels for her fourth on Friday, October 1.
“We’re glad that things are starting, and I hope we continue to get back to normal,” Gayle tells CultureMap. “It’s good to see friends I’ve made through the years. I’ve been in the business, oh, just for a couple of years.”
That’s definitely an overstatement, as Gayle started her career decades ago, following in the footsteps of her sister, groundbreaking country star Loretta Lynn. The younger singer started as a solo act without a band, playing the hits that house bands already knew how to play.
“I never was a backup singer,” adds Gayle. “I have read where people have written that I was in my sister’s band and I did backup for her, but I never did. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to; it just didn’t happen.”
With 19 years between the sisters and an entirely different upbringing in two states, Gayle had all the basis she needed to distinguish herself separately. It was eventually Lynn who encouraged Gayle to step away from the comparisons, stop performing her sister’s music, and develop her own style.
“She said, ‘You’ll only be compared to me,’ and that was the truth,” reflects Gayle, doubtless in countless retellings during her five decades in the music industry. “I had so many people in the beginning say, ‘So-and-so tells me you’re Loretta Lynn’s sister, and I say you're not … ’cause you don’t sound like her!’”
Gayle’s style focused more on the blues, with full, smooth vocals and slow instrumentals. While she stayed true to country, it was mellowed with flowing strings, spacious electric bass and piano-forward arrangements. The style earned her 18 No. 1 hits, according to Billboard, the fourth most for any female country singer as of 2018. In 2009, her star appeared on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and in 2016 she was formally invited by Carrie Underwood to become a member of the Grand Ole Opry, where she’d been singing for decades.
“My sister, Loretta, actually was the one who brought me into the family,” Gayle says of her induction to the Nashville institution. She laughs at her roundabout journey to official membership, a final level of recognition she is nonetheless still honored to receive. “As I always say, I thought I always was [in the family]. I’ve been on the Opry stage so many times.”
Part of developing a strong voice and keeping it, Gayle says, involved interrogating her own taste. She credits more of this personal development to producer Allen Reynolds, who encouraged her to listen closely and develop opinions on the music she was to record. Carrying the attitude to her personal brand outside of making music, she turned down endorsements for products she didn’t already use on her famous long hair. Resisting a sellout is a timeless concept, but since Gayle started, the industry has changed.
“People ask how to get into the business. Nowadays it’s so totally different than when I started,” Gayle tells CultureMap. “It’s almost like they’ll put a record out and then if you don’t do anything in that first half-year, you’re off the label. There are a lot of good acts. I just tell everybody just to sing everywhere you can.”
After an illustrious career, this is where Gayle is settling, too. She’s enjoying the travel again, and tweaking each performance for varying moods across the country (and every so often for a fan or friend who makes a request). Without hesitating, she names the moody, folksy song “Ready for the Times to Get Better” as one she never gets tired of performing.
Lyrics from Gayle’s 25 studio albums have started slipping her mind, a byproduct of “graduating,” in her words, to prompters. But she’s not done adding to her repertoire. Her most recent release, with Swedish rock musician Sulo, is nostalgic and upbeat, and opens potential for more recordings together in the future. She travels with her husband, Bill, and from time to time her adult children come out to watch. (Sometimes her son, Christos, a studio engineer and producer, comes to help with the live mix, and her grandson, high-schooler Elijah, helps sell merchandise.)
“When you’re starting out, you’re looking for having those hit records. You worry about a lot of things,” says Gayle. “For this time in my career, yes, I could retire tomorrow if I wanted to. But I enjoy being out there and still performing, so, you know, until that moment comes out, I’ll be out there.”
Crystal Gayle performs at the Brauntex Theatre on Friday, October 1. Tickets are available at brauntex.org. She’ll also visit a few other Texas spots along the tour, including Waco on December 2, Corsicana on December 3, Greenville on December 4, The Woodlands on December 12, and Fort Worth on December 13.