Pop Goes The Country is an ongoing series where I explore country music’s biggest crossover hits.
Loretta Lynn wasn’t the only member of her family to enter the country music industry. Other siblings, Peggy Sue and Jay Lee Webb, also entered the field, but Brenda Gail Webb, known later as Crystal Gayle, had other influences from Butcher Hollow.
If this feature is anything, it’s an exercise in demonstrating how generational gaps shape our culture. When Gayle was four, her parents moved to Wabash, Indiana, and Lynn was married and gone before she was ever born. Gayle did aspire to a life in music, but in the beginning folk and pop were her preferred musical choices. At any rate, after high school she toured with Lynn, had some minor hits, and played the lower levels of country tour packages, billed below Jerry Lee Lewis, the Osborne Brothers, and Blake Emmons, among others.
In 1972 her dues-paying began to pay off. She was paired with producer Allen Reynolds, who was responsible for Don Williams’ sound. With her throaty, bluesy, restrained voice, Gayle recorded songs backed by a gentle shuffle-beat on drums, subdued steel guitar and electric keyboards, shifting toward an increasingly pop sound as the ‘70s progressed.
And while Gayle continued on with her success, a songwriter was on his way down to the bottom. Very few people would be disappointed with a No. 1 single, but Gayle’s “I’ll Get Over You” sent songwriter Richard Leigh into a deep depression. That song, in a sense, was his big break; Gayle recorded it before Leigh even had a publisher, and it went on a secure a 1976 Country Music Association nomination for “Song Of The Year.” But when Leigh couldn’t measure up to that success with followup singles, he feared his career had already ended.
Leigh lived next to songwriter Sandy Mason, and when his depression wore on, she asked Reynolds if he could do anything to lift Leigh’s spirits. Mason, Reynolds and Leigh all met up at Mason’s apartment one night to swap songs and come up with potential ideas. Leigh mentioned a song he had written that his publisher was going to send to Shirley Bassey (best known for singing the theme from the James Bond movie Goldfinger), and when he played the song, “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue,” Reynolds told him, “Shirley Bassey my ass, I want that song!”
Like with many editions of this series, the hit song in question usually comes with a special recording story. On the day Gayle went in to cut the song, she had to use a different keyboard player, given that her usual pianist, Charles Cochran, was recovering from a mild stroke. So Reynolds hired not just a substitute, but the legendary Hargus “Pig” Robbins, who played on classic country hits like “White Lightning” (George Jones) and “Behind Closed Doors” (Charlie Rich). For “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue,” Robbins devised the song’s signature acoustic piano riff, giving it a bluesy feel to compliment Gayle’s voice. Plus, Cochran had recovered enough to play on the record, too, playing the horn parts on a Wurlitzer.
Leigh’s dry streak was broken with “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue,” netting two Grammy awards and giving Gayle her first, and only, million-selling single. The accompanying album, 1978’s We Must Believe In Magic, became the first platinum album certified by the Recording Industry Association of America for a Nashville-based female artist.
Sadly, though, this edition of this series ends on a tragic note, not for Gayle or Leigh, but for Leigh’s dog, Amanda. Leigh wrote the song while Amanda sat at his feet, staring at him with her big brown eyes. A few years later, a trash collector threw rocks at the dog, hitting her in one of her eyes. Amanda developed cataracts, literally turning one of her brown eyes blue. Join me next time on this series, where we’ll discuss Dolly Parton for the first of many upcoming times with “Here You Come Again.”
This feature was written thanks to the following sources:
– Quote attributions for Allen Reynolds and the bulk of the story behind “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue” are both attributed to How Nashville Became Music City U.S.A. by Michael Kosser, specifically the chapter, “The Men Of Garth.”
– Information surrounding Crystal Gayle’s life is attributed to the Encyclopedia of Country and Western Music by Rick Marschall.
– This Wide Open Country article by Bobby Moore supplied further information.