Think of the word “crystal” and you naturally conjure up images of elegance and beauty. And that’s what you think when you hear the name Crystal Gayle. The Grammy-winning, platinum recording artist made country music “cool,” in the words of one reviewer, and thrust that genre into the mainstream listening audience as never before.
Although “crystal” connotes something fragile and easily broken, that is nothing like Crystal Gayle. Born Brenda Gail Webb, sister of singer Loretta Lynn, in the poor Appalachian coal mining town of Paintsville, Kentucky, Crystal grew up in a large family where strength of character was a trait passed down from generation to generation.
“I’m the last out of eight children. My sister Loretta was the second child, and there’s 19 years between us. The oldest was Junior, so he’s got to be 20 or 21 years older than me,” Crystal told GRAND Magazine. “My mom was 39 when she had me. And actually, she had miscarriages as well. I remember her telling me of being out hoeing the corn and having a miscarriage – and then going right back out and hoeing the corn. They were very strong back then.”
Crystal says that in a family that size the older ones took care of the “next ones down.” When she was 4, the family moved to Wabash, Indiana. She lost her dad five years later, but she feels that she is a blend of her two parents in terms of her personality traits.
“My mother was very strong – she made things happen. My dad was shy, just as I have been over the years. When people would come to the house, my mom would make me sing for them. I would start hiding, because I knew she was going to do that. My mother said I could sing before I could walk. She was very proud of me, but she also knew she was trying to pull that shyness out of me.”
Her mom succeeded, and soon little Brenda was on her way to a singing career. But when she finally signed with a record company, she had to take on a whole new identity.
“I had to change my name because of Brenda Lee. They didn’t want two Brendas on the same label. But I didn’t care what they called me. But Loretta [Lynn] saw the name Crystal. It was on the Krystal Hamburger sign. That’s what inspired her. So I guess I’m named after a hamburger.”
Along with a new name, Crystal started growing her hair and never stopped.
“My hair grows fast. I attribute that to my Native American Cherokee heritage. My mother…kept my hair short as a boy’s. Then I saw someone with hair to the knee when I was in Nashville once. And I thought, well, I’m going to let my hair grow to there. And then I didn’t stop there. I just let it grow until it reached my ankles.”
Crystal wanted to be unique and not just known as Loretta’s little sister, and she succeeded in a spectacular fashion.
“It wasn’t always this way, but today I always find people who don’t know that Loretta and I are sisters. It’s because we sound different. When I started recording, she said, ‘Don’t record anything I would. You do MOR [middle of the road]. We have one Loretta Lynn; we don’t need another.’ And that was the best advice.”
While Loretta’s support and advice have been invaluable to Crystal, she has always been able to count on the support of her husband, Bill Gatzimos. Together, they have raised two terrific kids.
“We have a daughter, Catherine, 26, who’s into photography. Then I have a son, Chris, 23, who graduated from Belmont University in Nashville in accounting and business. He and his wife, Whitney, gave us our grandson, Elijah.”
When Chris and Catherine were growing up, they could always count on their parents being there for them.
“My husband and I were very hands-on when it came to raising our kids. Catherine traveled with me when she was first born. When I was onstage, I remember coming off stage and breast-feeding and then doing another show.”
Later, when the kids were in school, Bill would stay home when Crystal was on tour. Now Bill and Crystal have a grandson to cherish and love.
“Elijah is sandy blond and a handsome boy. I was trying on some clothes the other day and I had on this nice outfit, and he came to the house and said, ‘Ya Ya!'(I’m called Ya Ya because my husband is Greek. He’s called Papu). Anyway, he said, ‘Ya Ya, you look so beautiful!’ He’s 5, and I can already tell he’s going to be some ladies’ man.
He absorbs things so much. I had the TV on; there was a woman on talking about things to do when a tornado hits, and she said that she decided to go into the men’s restroom because there are no outside windows. The next day Elijah was playing with these little men and said, ‘Oh no, the storm’s coming. Let’s go inside-we got to go to the men’s room where there’s no outside windows.’ I told Chris and Whitney, ‘You know that everything you do and say at home is going to wind up in school. So you better behave!'”
Crystal says life is so different with Elijah around, she’s finding it harder and harder to leave home these days.
“Holidays are so amazing with Elijah. We make cookies, which is great because I never really got much of a chance to do this with my own children. There’s a pull when I go on the road* when I’m not around him, and I want to be. He’s just a bright spot that you want to see all the time. He loves life.”