When Crystal Gayle was launching her recording career, big sister Loretta Lynn warned her off traditional country.
“She said, ‘Don’t go this way because they’ll only compare you to me,’” Gayle, 68, tells PEOPLE, “and she was right.”
Who can argue with Loretta Lynn? Gayle went on to become a queen of country pop through the 1970s and ’80s, with 20 No. 1 songs, including the classic “Don't It Make My Brown Eyes Blue.”
Her stature long ago permanently secured, Gayle is now enjoying the freedom to return to her roots with You Don't Know Me, an album made up entirely of classic country. Released Friday, it’s Gayle’s first new album in 16 years — and no one has been more supportive than Lynn, 87, who contributed her vocals to one of the songs.
“Put It Off Until Tomorrow,” co-written by Dolly Parton and Bill Owens in the mid-1960s, is actually a sibling trio, with Lynn, Gayle and 76-year-old sister Peggy Sue Webb Wright. Lynn recorded her track at Gayle’s Music Row studio just a few months before suffering a stroke in May 2017.
“It’s very special that she would do it,” Gayle says wistfully. “She came in and sang it, and said, ‘What’s next?’ If I’d had 10 tracks done, she would have sung every one of them that day. I should have had more than one.”
Even so, the entire album can still be considered a family affair: Among the songs is “You Never Were Mine,” written by Lynn and Gayle’s late brother Jay Lee Webb. And Crystal’s son, Christos Gatzimos, a Nashville sound engineer, co-produced (with Gayle), recorded and mixed every track.
In fact, the opportunity for Gayle to work with her son inspired the album. “It was really to show Chris some of the songs I grew up singing,” Gayle says. “These were songs I loved, songs that meant something to me.”
Raised in Indiana, where she moved to from Kentucky at age 4, Gayle says she listened to all kinds of music, but “country music is in my soul.” All the songs on the album have a personal connection, whether they’re ones she remembers singing as a child or hits sung by country legends, such as Faron Young and Buck Owens, that she opened for early in her career. Most tracks lean toward ballads, playing to the strength of her smooth, silky voice.
Perhaps the most personally significant cut is “Ribbon of Darkness,” which Gayle sang for her first performance on the Grand Ole Opry — as a last-minute replacement for Lynn. Only 16 at the time, she went by Brenda Gayle, an alteration of her given name, Brenda Gail Webb. (Lynn soon decided that singer Brenda Lee had laid claim to her little sister’s first name and, inspired by a Krystal hamburger sign, christened her again.)
“Loretta was sick,” Gayle recalls of her Opry debut, “and I know Mooney, her husband, talked somebody into letting me go on stage that night.”
Today, Gayle remembers little about the performance “other than just being there and singing and just being so nervous. If I could have hidden behind the microphone stand, I would have.”
Fifty years later, in January 2017, Gayle sang the same song on the night she was inducted into the Grand Ole Opry by Lynn. An Opry regular for years, Gayle says the invitation, which Carrie Underwood extended on stage in November 2016, was “a nice surprise.”
Doubtless for some fans, the real surprise was that she wasn’t already a member. But Gayle brushes aside the timing, saying she has always felt part of the Opry family. “Now,” she jokes, “I say the only difference is I have to sweep the floor at night!” (She adds, reverentially: “I would sweep the floor. It wouldn’t bother me.”)
Gayle continues to keep an active artist schedule, performing 40 to 60 dates a year. In April, she had a command performance at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena for Lynn’s birthday tribute concert, singing “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue” at her sister’s request. Gayle reports that Lynn, who lives about 75 miles west of Nashville, is “strong” and happily entertains a string of constant guests: “She gets so many people visiting that when you go down there, it’s a mess.”
At least for the meantime, they can also expect to see Gayle’s trademark hair that sweeps long past her waist. She once let it grow out three to four inches beyond her 5-foot-2 height, but she says, she tired of stepping on it on stage with her high heels.
Gayle says she considered cutting it off many years ago, but her daughter, Catherine (now 36), protested. “You can’t cut your hair — you won’t be Crystal Gayle, ” her daughter told her, according to her recollection.
But Gayle says she’s now toying again with a significant encounter with scissors. “It’s hard to get rid of something that’s been around for a while,” she says, but yes, she confirms it has become a bit of a burden.
“I keep thinking, when I quit the road, is that when I cut it — or do I cut it before?” she says, adding that she’s being tempted by some current styles.
This isn’t like Samson’s hair, though. She still will be able to sing, right?
She just laughs at the playful suggestion: “Oh, I hope so!”