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Crystal Gayle wants to set the record as straight as her long, brunette tresses. She has no intention of cutting her luxurious hair, no matter what some recent publications have reported. This woman has been around show business long enough to know that rumor is a cornerstone of publicity, for better or worse. What is hair today, can easily be hype tomorrow.

"You know, I read the article where this rumor was supposedly picked up from and it didn't really say anything," Gayle said. "It was sensationalized and went beyond what was meant. I cut about a foot with occasional trimmings each year, but my hair just grows fast.

"But I woke up one morning and was getting calls from everywhere _ TV shows, people wanting to buy exclusive pictures or stories. I was just saying: "Wait a minute. What's going on here?' I didn't really realize how important my hair was to the public."

The same type of media distractions haunted Gayle in her early career. Instead of paying tribute to her clear, evocative voice, fans were more concerned about her legendary singing sibling.

"But I'm proud of being Loretta Lynn's little sister," she insisted. "That never did bother me, but, of course, I've had success on my own. Things might have felt differently if I hadn't. I never looked for that kind of attention. Even growing my hair was just something I chose to do, not any gimmick."

Public interest in these trivial matters have occasionally overshadowed Gayle's career achievements. She can match No. 1 songs with Madonna and Whitney Houston any day, but is not their equal when it comes to glamorous images.

"I definitely have not tried to cultivate that," Gayle said, with no apologies for her lack of flash. "I think I'm more of a home, down-to-earth type of person. I never feel underappreciated, though."

Tonight's performance will include many of the songs that made Gayle one of the most successful female artists of the last two decades. Don't It Make My Brown Eyes Blue, Talking In Your Sleep and When I Dream quickly became romantic pop standards.

Gayle will be joined on the Ruth Eckerd Hall playbill by Ronnie Milsap, another award-winning country music star with a legion of fans.

"It's been a while since we worked together," Gayle said. "A lot of times it's not easy to work the road with other artists. It's always special when you work with people you respect and Ronnie has a fantastic voice."

Milsap will visit Tampa Bay on a brief break from the recording studio, where he made himself unavailable for interviews last week. His next album is due to be released in February and tracks have already been recorded with Mark Knopfler, John Hiatt and the Harlem Boys Choir.

That forthcoming album is the next step in a 17-year career that earned Milsap numerous awards from Grammys to the Academy of County Music. Along the way there have been 36 No. 1 country music chart singles, including Any day Now, Lost In The Fifties Tonight and Stranger In My House.

The Georgia-born Milsap is no stranger to crossover success, though. In 1984 he became the first country artist to crack MTV's rock 'n' roll rotation with She Loves My Car. He has worked with such diverse performers as Dionne Warwick, Kenny Rogers and Elvis Presley (on the classic Kentucky Rain).

This year, Milsap's autobiography Almost Like A Song, was published. There is quite a story to tell, considering Milsap was born blind, with congenital glaucoma.

In an ironic twist, Milsap believes that may have been a lucky break for his music career. He was sent away from the North Carolina woods to a school for the blind in Raleigh. There he learned how to play the piano and violin.

"It's almost crazy to say it," he explained in a press release. "but in some ways, it's a blessing I was born blind. If I had been born sighted in western North Carolina and gone through the public school system there, I certainly wouldn't be doing what I'm doing now."


Crystal Gayle and Ronnie Milsap at Ruth Eckerd Hall today at 5:30 and 9 p.m. Tickets are $22 and $26 and available at the box office. Call 791-7060 (Clearwater).