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Clear as crystal, Gayle carved her own country path

October 18, 2017

Ours is increasingly a culture of absolutes, but I still like a little balance.

Take country music. I enjoy Waylon, Willie and the boys as much as anybody. But I found their red-eyed version of country music nicely offset by songs of domestic contentment offered by the recently departed Don Williams.

Similarly, who would’ve wanted a second Loretta Lynn? Even at age 85, Loretta Lynn is all the Loretta Lynn we’ll ever need, a wickedly funny, strong and insightful songwriter and singer.

It stands to reason Crystal Gayle, Lynn’s little sister, wouldn’t attempt to replicate Lynn’s success.

Still, I’m intrigued that two daughters - born Loretta and Brenda Webb - of the same coal miner could have charted such different careers.

Admittedly, Gayle, who plays the Dosey Doe Friday night, is nearly 20 years younger and spent much of her youth outside of Butcher Holler, Ky., where new shoes were scarce in the summer but always there in the winter when they were really needed.

If Lynn’s voice curled and twisted like the branch of a tree, Gayle’s was more like the stage name her older sis gave her. Gayle’s little vocal tics - sometimes the vowels stretched to a second syllable - revealed her roots. But her songs more often began with a synth vamp than a fiddle lick. And I was always cool with that. Maybe it was the presence of the “Classic Crystal” cassette on every family road trip.

But more than that, I like the larger idea of cosmic balance. Gayle didn’t apply her voice to songs of defiance and independence like her sister did, but her upper register on the weepers has always been a thing of aching beauty.

And while she isn’t known as a writer the way Lynn is, her early discography revealed an ear for a well-curated set of songs. It’s not entirely surprising, she went often to songwriter Bob McDill, a Beaumont native who wrote or co-wrote some of her best-known hits: “You Never Miss a Real Good Thing (’Till He Says Goodbye),” “I’ll Do It All Over Again,” “Right in the Palm of Your Hand.”

Those songs are hardly honky-tonk and thus hardly country to some purists. But Gayle brought a touch of torch to her music, a vulnerable, jazz-touched variation of an established rural form.

There’s more than one way to spin a Webb.