Crystal Gayle was the sound of my childhood. I remember Terry Wogan playing her on BBC radio in the UK and my mum wearing out her tapes in the car whenever we drove anywhere. Along with Wogan and Bagpuss (the classic UK children's show from the '70s) narrator Oliver Postgate, her voice - a luxuriously smooth mix of country and jazz-inflected pop - soundtracked my earliest memories.
When the world went into lockdown last year, I found myself listening to Crystal Gayle more than ever before, over and over again in fact; a familiar comfort in a world of uncertainty and disquietude. Listening to her felt like going back home again at a time when I couldn’t. It was what I needed to stay sane. It was either that or rewatch Ivor The Engine (another classic from the golden era of British children's television); luckily, things never got that bad.
Listening to all those records again last year, what I realised more than anything was how truly incredible they were; how inventive and off-centre they sound, even now. Crystal Gayle is the overlooked queen of 70s pop-country. Maybe it’s because she’s quieter and more unassuming than her older sister Loretta Lynn, or maybe it’s just the fickleness of pop music trickling over, but it feels like Gayle never gets as much credit as she deserves.
The songs she recorded broke the ground for artists like Kacey Musgraves to walk on today. As Countrypolitan crossed over into the pop mainstream, Gayle was pushing it a step further with a soft pop sound that was like nothing else in country music at the time. Working with Allen Reynolds - who Cowboy Jack Clement had brought in to be vice president of his newly formed JMI Records in the early 70s –they set about reshaping the pop-country landscape, with a soft fusion of slow disco-pop, middle of the road (MOR), smooth jazz and a twang of traditional country. It’s a sound that makes sense sitting alongside the records that Dolly Parton, Barbara Mandrell or Lynn Anderson were putting out at the time, yet still stands distinctly on its own.
While I was listening to We Must Believe In Magic on repeat and worrying about the end of the world, Gayle was on the other side of the Atlantic, busily recording a brand new album with the Swedish Singer-songwriter, Sulo Karlsson, best known as the singer of Diamond Dogs. I was lucky enough to get to talk to Crystal about their new single, ‘Lonely Street Choir’, and about what the last 50 or so years in Nashville have meant to her. Oh, and the Muppets. Obviously.
You grew up in Kentucky and then Indiana, but was Nashville always the place that you thought you’d end up?
I grew up in Wabash, Indiana – of course, I was born in Paintsville, Kentucky, or Van Lear up in ‘Butcher Holler’ – and was the last out of eight children. We left Kentucky when I was about four when the mines were closing. We moved to Wabash and I went to school there, and I would sing in the choir and all the different places that I could sing. Music was always a part of my life - of course, my sister Loretta was in the business and starting out around then too. So music was just there for me. I always sang; my mother said I could sing before I could walk. So music is in our blood. It's something that we love to do, and definitely having a big sister in the business got my foot in the door.
Do you remember when you first came to Nashville?
I was 16 or 17 when I first played the Grand Ole Opry. I'm really not sure exactly what the date was, but it was when my sister was sick. She was supposed to do the Opry and Mooney, her husband, talked the Opry into letting me go on stage and sing in her place. I remember singing the Marty Robbins’ song ‘Ribbon Of Darkness’, and it was just incredible.
Had you always wanted to be on stage?
I am definitely more shy than most of my brothers and sisters. Maybe that's because I was the last out of eight, and my father had passed away when I was eight or nine. I'm sure that put me in my shell. You know, I love singing and I love being out there and meeting people in entertainment, but I don't need to be out there making up stories or doing things to be a celebrity, like a lot of people do.
Your new song ‘Lonely Street Choir’ is about a singer struggling to make it in a city. Did it feel autobiographical?
When you really look at songs, you’re asking, “Does this fit me? Can I sing it? Can I put the words across?” We're all a little bit of an actor when we're singing. I've always said that if I’d been through all the heartache that I’ve sung about I’d be in poor shape. I'm sure that different people get different things from listening to the lyrics of ‘Lonely Street Choir’, but I know how I felt when I was singing the song, and which direction it was going for me. So you do that and you make it your song.
So is there still part of you that feels like the character in that Lonely Street Choir sometimes? Are you still looking to prove yourself in some way musically, even after all the success you’ve had?
In my career I've had a lot of successes, but I just love singing. It's not about all the number ones – and I know I've had over 20 number ones and I've had all this and that and just loved every minute of it – but mostly I just love all the friends I've made through the years all over the world; that’s what makes it special. I can reach out and talk to someone across the waters and it's like we're right there together.
So with this song, we want all the success we can get, but most importantly it's just what we love to do. Sulo writes all the time; I think he writes a song a day, and he does it because he loves it. The same way that I do.
How did the collaboration with Sulo come about?
I just got an email from him. It was during the pandemic and he just sent the song and said, “I would sure love to have you sing on it”. When I heard it, I loved it. I didn't know Sulo that well, but I thought it was just an incredible song. I loved the feel of it. It reminded me of early rock music, from the early 70s and 80s.
Sulo did his part in Sweden, they put other instruments on in London and other places, then I recorded my vocal here in Nashville at Audio 51, my studio on Music Row. I love singing with Sulo. I love his style. I'm so happy that he reached out to me, with me being here in Nashville and him being all the way over there. It’s such a small world in a lot of ways.
What’s it like being back at the Opry all these years later?
Time really goes fast; from being on that stage at the Ryman all those years ago to now being a member of the Opry. It took a long time, but I always thought it wasn’t personal. I was part of the family. Every time I went and performed I felt accepted there, but then they made me a member in 2017.
After you left Decca in the early 70s and signed with United Artists, you moved away from the more traditional country sound and started bringing more pop-country and jazz into your sound. Was it something you were consciously trying to do?
I grew up singing all different styles of music. In school, I’d sing in the choirs and swing groups, and then on the weekends, I'd sing with my brothers’ country band. When I started recording, Loretta gave me the best advice, telling me, “quit singing my songs and do not record anything that I would. You go MOR because we already have one Loretta and we don't need another, and if you don’t you'll only ever be compared to me”. She was right. I loved her music and I would sing every song of hers, but she knew that I would only ever be compared to her if I did that and I wouldn’t have any success of my own. I had to do my own thing and go a different way.
How has Nashville changed over the years? Did you ever feel like you needed to adjust your sound to what else was happening in country music at the time?
I never really listened to what was going on at radio in the sense of trying to decide what to record. One of the things I noticed in Nashville, was that often the people that took over the record companies were not musical. That's when things really started changing in a different way, and maybe not for the best. You could tell that they were deciding what to put out and just wanted to have more say, but they weren't really musical enough to know what they were talking about. That happens in any type of business, I would assume, but that's what I felt had happened in Nashville. I think people saw the city as something new and exciting that they could come into - people came in from New York and California to head up the companies and to move it forward - because they felt like it had potential beyond what it was at the time.
What have been your favourite moments from your career?
Well, there are some blurry moments, and there are some great ones that I can look back on, like being in the studio, recording certain songs or making videos, and winning the awards, definitely. But I still think the highlight for me is just making the friends that I've made all over the world.
Oh, and I do have to say doing the Muppets was one of the highlights. I met Jim Henson and everyone from the Muppets and they were just incredible. We were there for a couple of weeks, doing all the pre-recordings. I actually took my mother on that particular trip with me too. I had to because she wanted to meet Miss Piggy. Actually, in the show’s storyline, Miss Piggy wouldn’t work with me so she didn’t do any scenes with me, but she did come onto the set to meet my mother.
Your real name is actually Brenda Gail Webb? Are you ever Brenda still or are you only Crystal now?
I had to change my name when I started recording because of Brenda Lee. They didn't want to have two Brendas on the same label. I suppose I would have been Brenda Gayle, but my sister thought of the name Crystal because she saw it on a Krystal Hamburger sign. I'm all Crystal now though. In the very beginning, it bothered me a little bit, but when I recorded I didn’t care what they called me, I was just happy to be recording. After I left Decca I thought maybe I should go back to Brenda because I was on a different label, but I figured I'd started out my career a crystal. Crystal is who I am and who I’m always going to be.
Crystal Gayle's new single, 'Lonely Street Choir, featuring Sulo, is out now via Misty Recordings.
Photography courtesy of Jeff Chegwin.