Country star Crystal Gayle on love of Northern Ireland, singing with Daniel O'Donnell and secret to long, happy marriage
Once voted one of the 50 most beautiful people in the world, the 67-year-old US singer chats to Lorraine Wylie about visiting famous landmarks here and why her family is so important to her
She ranks among country music's most successful artists. But back in the Sixties, when Crystal Gayle first started out, it was her big sister Loretta Lynn who was stealing the show. Twenty years younger and struggling to find her musical identity, Crystal (born Brenda Gail Webb) found it difficult to emerge from her sister's formidable shadow.
Then, in the early Seventies, the Kentucky songstress finally found her niche as a country-pop crossover act. The more middle of the road style, along with her velvety vocals, proved a winning combination, leading to hits such as Talking in Your Sleep, The Wrong Road Again and the iconic, Don't It Make My Brown Eyes Blue.
Five decades later, the star shows no sign of slowing down.
Following last month's performance on Daniel O'Donnell's country music extravaganza, Opry Le Daniel, I caught up with Crystal who told me about her latest album, You Don't Know Me, and why she always enjoys her visits to Northern Ireland.
"I just love the country!" she says, with a soft southern drawl. "From the very first time I visited, way back at the beginning of my career, I felt as though I'd come home. The people remind me of my family back in Kentucky, very warm and open. Maybe it's the Scots/Irish part of me that makes me feel so close to everyone here. I had an amazing time in Londonderry! It was great catching up with Daniel and all my friends. Best of all, my daughter Catherine came over and although I was very busy with the show we did manage to fit in a fair bit of sightseeing."
Throughout her career, Crystal has visited Northern Ireland many times but is always happy to learn something new.
"On this occasion, I had an opportunity to learn more about the rich history of Derry city. It was fascinating to discover more about the building of the walls, the murals, the siege and what happened through World War Two. Best of all, I was delighted to introduce my family to the lovely people and the country."
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As a Game of Thrones fan, Crystal couldn't resist a trip to the Dark Hedges.
"Yes, my daughter and I are huge fans," she laughs. "We've watched every episode at least three times. We loved visiting some of the film locations and I was blown away by the beauty of Ballintoy Harbour. What an incredible place. Naturally, we couldn't resist a trip to the Dark Hedges.
"The Irish countryside is not only beautiful but unforgettable."
Her new country classic album, You Don't Know Me, due for release in August, comes a little later than expected. Why is that?
"We had hoped to bring it out earlier but unfortunately we had put it on hold. We were doing a few other things - although one of the main reasons for the delay was that I wanted my sister Loretta to come in and do a song with me. It was just before she got sick. She was so gracious to do that and I was delighted.
"My other sister, Peggy Sue, also sings on the album. We call ourselves the Van Lear sisters after the town in Kentucky where we used to live. We find it funny.
"I know the album is a bit late but it's such a beautiful collection of songs - they're the ones I grew up singing and I know fans will love it."
At 87, her sister Loretta, who is famous for the song about her life as 'a coal miner's daughter', has had some serious health issues. In 2017 she suffered a stroke and then last year fell and fractured her hip. How is she now?
"She's doing really good, thanks," Crystal confirms. "We had her birthday celebration in Nashville in April and it was a wonderful time. So many people came out to celebrate with us. It has given us all some lovely memories."
Over the years, Crystal has recorded many beautiful songs - but does she have an all-time favourite?
"Well, I really do love Don't It Make My Brown Eyes Blue. It's very special to me. I think it's the kind of song that speaks to the emotions. Even today, audiences love it.
"You know, fate had that song left out for me. I remember back then when we sat down with Richard Leigh, the guy who wrote it, he was planning to send it to a few other people, including Shirley Bassey. My producer, Allen Reynolds, heard that and said 'hey, I don't want you sending that to anyone but Crystal, it's her song!'.
"Would you believe it, we did that song in one take. What you hear is what went down. Those songs don't come around very often so I'm so glad it came to me. As for other favourites, I'd have to say I do have a soft spot for When I Dream and Ready for Times to Get Better."
I ask Crystal what makes her happy, and her answer reveals something of her caring nature.
"Music! I find singing very uplifting," she says. "You know, people underestimate the power of music but everyone in the industry knows that music is therapeutic. Over the years I have received so many letters telling me how my music has helped people cope with some difficult times. Those letters mean more to me than any awards.
"I also love spending time with family. We're quite close but we don't live in each other's pockets. I mean, my sisters and me, we're like all sisters. We argue and quarrel but if anything happens or someone needs something, we're all there. I think that's how a family should be. We may not see each other as often as we'd like. It isn't easy but we try to get together as often as possible, it's just what families do."
In 1983, People Magazine voted Crystal one of the 50 most beautiful people in the world. Even today, she looks much younger than her 67 years. But has time taken its toll on her voice?
"Of course, yes," she laughs. "When I listen back to recordings from the early days, I can hear the young, girlie voice. Later, I can detect a maturity creeping in and my voice becomes lower. Then there's the physical impact. I mean, as a young girl, I could sing all day every day and it wouldn't bother me. As you get older you have to take it a little slower.
"We do the casinos in Vegas a week or two at a time, two shows a night, and I find that hard work. But there are positives. In the early days, I sounded a little timid, a little shy. Listening to the younger me makes me smile, it's very cute."
How does she look after her voice?
"I do the usual warm-ups and I'm careful what I eat because some food can affect the voice," she reveals.
"It's trial and error. If I'm doing a lot of shows, I'll make a nice warm drink of honey and lemon. The lemon really does help."
As well as her velvety vocals, Crystal is famed for her beautiful floor-length hair. Has she ever been tempted to cut it?
"Sometimes," she chuckles. "It's actually not as long as it used to be. But it's still long. You know, I find the prospect of cutting it difficult. I know I probably should because I'm useless at styling and fixing it. My sisters tell me to cut it but it's been with me a very long time.
"Looking back, I think I grew it in the first place because it was just easier. All I had to do was wash it and leave it to dry. I didn't need to worry about styles. Then it just kept growing. I do trim it - every year I take between nine and 12 inches off. I don't know how long it would be if I didn't trim it. It might have ended up dragging the floor two feet behind me!"
Married to her high school sweetheart, Bill Gatzimos, in 1971, Crystal shares her recipe for a long and happy marriage.
"Most of all you have to let each other breathe," she suggests.
"Give your other half space to explore their own interests, do their own thing. It's important to keep your identity. We have two children and when they were young and I was on tour we'd all go together or sometimes Bill stayed home to look after them. We just did what we had to do as a family.
"Everything had to benefit us all as a unit. Of course, every marriage has its ups and downs. Sometimes we argue, that's the Cherokee/Scots Irish in me. I have to give my opinion. I call it the Indi-innin!"
And with such a busy lifestyle, how does she relax?
"I'm not sure that word is in my vocabulary," Crystal admits. "When I'm not working, I like to hang out with friends. Sometimes I like to read or watch movies but, as my husband says, I really don't know the meaning of the word."