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Crystal Gayle on Building Her Music Career After Leaving Sister Loretta Lynn’s Label

Crystal Gayle First Time in Variety
Kirsten Ulve for Variety

With her self-titled debut album for United Artists Records in Nashville nearly 45 years ago, singer Crystal Gayle immediately established a winning sound that would take the 24-year-old younger sister of country music legend Loretta Lynn repeatedly to the top of the music charts. Hit records such as “Wrong Road Again,” “I’ll Get Over You,” “When I Dream,” “Half the Way,” “Talking in Your Sleep” and the ubiquitous jazz-flavored ballad “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue” erased all shadows cast over her career by her big sister.

Gayle releases her first new album in 16 years this month, “You Don’t Know Me: Classic Country.” But she arrived in the pages of Variety 47 years ago, on Oct. 25, 1972, when rights org SESAC was celebrating one of the singles from her short-lived association with Decca Records.

You recorded for Decca, your sister’s label, and were produced by Owen Bradley, who also produced your sister’s classic records. Sounds like a lot of pressure straight out of the gate.

My first record, “I’ve Cried the Blues Right out of My Eyes,” was actually written by Loretta. She also wrote some other songs I recorded. That was a time when they leaned on having Loretta on the team helping me. They wanted me to do what she wanted. And I knew I was only there because I was her sister.

But it wasn’t really working. 

Starting in the business was fun. I got to work with Owen Bradley. I was scared every minute I was around him, but those were fun times.

Until it wasn’t.

Not when it’s clear you’re not going to be on the label. People tell you things, and then you see they’re not telling the truth. It was only a three-year contract that was put together by Loretta’s husband, Mooney. We ended that deal by mutual agreement. I was actually thinking about not pursuing a career.

That’s surprising to hear. Did being Loretta Lynn’s sister prepare you for the difficulties?

I grew up with my sister in the business. So I thought, “This is simple. You just go to Nashville and record songs, and you have hit records. I loved singing and I loved what I was doing, though I probably did more things because the agency wanted it than because I enjoyed it. My sister was more ambitious. I watched her work herself into the hospital, and I didn’t want that. I thought, “Nope, I’m not going to kill myself.”

What would you have done if you hadn’t become a country singing star?

I would have become the head of the FBI or something like that.

That’s quite an ambition!

I know it wouldn’t have been easy, being a woman. I probably would have started as a secretary. But I would have worked my way up to the top!

Thankfully for your fans, UA Records signed you, and you started making hit records with producer Allen Reynolds.

I loved Allen’s writing, and his songs fit my voice. He was someone I didn’t think I was going to find in Nashville. The first thing was, he always asked me if I liked the songs. He valued my opinion. And I’d sing, and he’d say, “Let’s try it another way.” He was very wise, and I knew right away that he knew what he was talking about. We worked in a way that was very refreshing compared to a lot of what goes on in Nashville.

Country music radio seemed to have more female voices when you were working at UA.

It’s different today. Men dominate it because it’s music designed for big stadiums. There’s no room for the pop or soft rock like there was in the ’70s. So that’s one of the reasons the women aren’t as big. The men have completely taken over. That’s what people think country music is, but that’s not all it is. I had just as many women fans, and if they don’t like you, they won’t go see you. And men won’t go to stadium concerts by themselves!