Linda Gail Lewis’s first entry into records came in 1963, when she was still a mere teenager. She added harmonies on her brother Jerry Lee’s recording of George Jones’s “Seasons of My Heart.” Ask her about it, and she will admit in her frank manner that she is far from impressed with her first time in the studio.
“I don’t remember a lot about the first session at Sun when we did ‘Seasons of My Heart,’” she recalled to Billboard. “I really don’t think I thought too much about it. At that time, I wasn’t really excited about recording. It was his idea to do it, and I don’t think I was quite ready. I never really liked my vocal on it. It just wasn’t that good, but I did it anyway. He told me to do it, and I did it.”
More to her liking was their 1969 duets album on Smash titled Together, which netted two chart singles (“Don’t Let Me Cross Over,” No. 9, and “Roll Over Beethoven,” No. 71). She has humorous memories of recording the former, a 1962 chart-topper cheating song for husband and wife duo Carl & Pearl Butler.
“Kenny Lovelace, who is my ex-husband, said that we should cut the song. We did that, and I love the recording, but we had a lot of trouble getting through the song because they put [me and Jerry] on the mic facing each other. He’s my brother – and I’m his sister – and we’re singing ‘Don’t Let Me Cross Over?’ Every time we started singing it, we started laughing. We only got through it one time.”
A bit more organic for Lewis was the recording of the just-released set Wild! Wild! Wild! The disc pairs her with Americana/roots artist Robbie Fulks, who said that recording with Lewis was something that he had wanted to do after striking up a friendship with her.
“We were working for the same promoter in Sweden, and I got the idea that I wanted to work on a record with her. I wanted to sit her behind an acoustic piano, and write some stuff for her. I had this idea that it would be rewarding for both of us. So, I pitched it to her through her daughter, Annie, and that’s how we got started on it.”
One song that Fulks penned with Lewis in mind was the frisky “Round Too Long,” of which he said “That was for her, obviously. Nobody else could sing it, or would probably want to. I just had a great time writing that one. It’s so fun to write in someone else’s voice that you are fond of, who has an interesting life story. Linda’s life story is exactly that, and she has enough of a sense of humor and perspective to do it. Some people might be too modest or embarrassed to sing some of those lines, but she just dived right into it and took it over.”
Lewis seemed to throw herself into lyrics like “When the girls was playin’ at jump rope, I was playin’ the men for fools,” that she said were ones she definitely could have written about her growing-up years in Louisiana.
“That was so much fun. I loved that song. Well, I started dating when I was eleven. My first boyfriend was Randall Dooley, who was a preacher’s son. So, I could have written the song ‘Son of a Preacher Man.’ He was eighteen at the time. But, I got started young. I truly wasn’t interested in jump rope at that time. I was interested in going out with boys.”
Wild! Wild! Wild! consists of several performance where Fulks or Lewis are featured prominently, as well as the classic-sounding duet “That’s Why They Call It Temptation.” He said that any comparisons to Conway and Loretta or George and Tammy are welcome.
“There’s nobody better for my voice to mix with on that kind of thing than Linda. I think the male/female duet in country music is one thing that if I had to pick on a desert island, that might be the thing. I love that chemistry that those artists had, or Johnny and Jonie Mosby, to get more obscure had. Doing it with Linda is stepping into that world, and the blending of the voices is really ideal.”
Lewis agrees with that assessment, saying, “I think our voices blend so well, and that we sing so good together. I really loved doing that song. I felt we could sing it well, and as it turned out, we did.”
Fulks said the two have a chemistry that comes across in the studio, something he says is helped out by how well Lewis sings harmonies. “I noticed immediately how easy it was to sing with her. She’s sung with some very eccentric singers – Jerry Lee and Van Morrison – and with those guys, every performance is a new thing. You never know what they are going to do next. I didn’t take that license, because I’m not that eccentric. But, I noticed when I did something in the moment that occurred to me, she was right there with me on the beat, or even sometimes, a little bit ahead. That kind of freedom is really rare. It felt great to sing with her, and that just registered right away. We were just clicking, and could have done that with a thousand songs and make them sound good.”
Perhaps the album’s shining moment comes on the sentimental “Hardluck, Louisiana,” which Fulks said was inspired by Lewis’s childhood – to an extent.
“I just went into a hotel room without a thought in my head, and started working on that one and a few other songs for her. I had a little bit of mythology built up around the Lewis family, but on top of that, I just tried to put myself in that situation. When I was young, I also lived on a farm in the South. We might not have been as hard off as the Lewis family was, but we didn’t have a lot of money. I just used a lot of my personal memories to graft onto the song, and I tried to imagine what that upbringing might feel like. I also looked at old pictures of Louisiana on the Internet, and thought about the trees and the landscape, and things like that. I think that’s all you need. I don’t think you have to do a lot of research in songwriting, generally.”
Research or not, Lewis said Fulks nailed her life story. “When I heard that song, I felt like he had been standing on the riverbank with us. That’s how much I loved that song. He hit it exactly. The song really explains how I feel now. When you look back, you think about the poverty and being embarrassed to get off of the school bus in front of a shack. But, then you think about your mama making fried chicken on Sunday, your brothers and your sisters, and your parents – all of them together singing Gospel songs in that old house – and that’s when it turns it to heaven in my mind, when I think about those things.”