Glen Campbell Remembered
There’s a natural inferiority complex that is part of being an Arkansan. It doesn’t matter what accomplishments originate from Arkansas in the world of politics (Bill Clinton), business (Sam Walton, Don Tyson), architecture (Fay Jones), literature (Maya Angelou), or music (Big Bill Broonzy, Charlie Rich, Johnny Cash, Levon Helm, Conway Twitty), the “Natural State” is always defined by its backwoods, rube infested image. Therefore, there’s always a sense of rooting for the success of a fellow Arkansan, as a constant battle for a sense of legitimacy that will never be acknowledged.
Glen Travis Campbell, one of twelve children born to a sharecropper in Delight, Arkansas, made his fellow Razorbacks hog calling proud while carving out a singular niche in the world of entertainment, using his polite, down home image and his prodigious musical gifts to become a superstar in the worlds of pop music, country music, and network television, died yesterday at the age of 81 after a long battle with Alzheimer’s Disease. As a teenager, Campbell moved to New Mexico to perform with his Uncle Boo (a.k.a. Dick Bills), who had taught him to play guitar. A few years later, Campbell worked as a touring member of The Champs, who had scored a #1 hit in 1958 with the instrumental “Tequila” and then found session work as part of the famed Los Angeles Wrecking Crew. Campbell had his first minor success as a solo recording artist in 1962 with the #62 pop hit “Turn Around, Look at Me,” a Jerry Capehart composition. Ironically, hearing that record on the radio was a significant emotional event for an Oklahoma teenager named Jimmy Webb. The single would be the first record that Webb ever purchased and a few short years later, Webb would be writing some of the best pop music ever made for Campbell’s crystal clear tenor voice.
Campbell toured with The Beach Boys during the mid-1960s, while continuing his session work to include performing on Frank Sinatra’s 1966 #1 single “Strangers in the Night.” He had his first Top Twenty country single with the string drenched “Burning Bridges” in January of 1967. He unleashed his first classic later that year with his cover of John Hartford’s “Gentle on My Mind,” a folk sounding, banjo hooked ramblin’ man love song. “Gentle on My Mind” was never a major country or pop hit but seemed like one after becoming the theme of the “Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour” television show, which aired from 1969 to 1972. Finally, Campbell had his breakthrough hit in the fall of 1967 with “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” a song Jimmy Webb had written after a breakup in 1965 and was first recorded by Johnny Rivers.
Campbell was creating a new style of country music during the late 1960s, neither honky tonk nor countrypolitan, but with a pop singer/songwriter core and often lush instrumentation. I would argue that the late 1960s was the true golden era for the genre of country music, with Merle Haggard at his peak as a songwriter, Johnny Cash reinvigorated by his live prison concert albums, the initial emergence of Waylon Jennings as a solo star, and country music crossing over to influence the sounds of acts such as The Byrds, The International Submarine Band, The Monkees, The Flying Burrito Brothers, and Bob Dylan. Glen Campbell not only rose to fame during this era, but his best work is as timeless as any of his competitors.
Campbell released his masterpiece in 1968 with “Wichita Lineman.” Glen Campbell wanted Jimmy Webb to write another song “about a town.” Webb had “prairie goth” images in his head and went much deeper. Webb, “You can see someone working in construction or working in a field, a migrant worker or a truck driver, and you may think you know what’s going on inside him, but you don’t. You can’t assume that just because someone’s in a menial job that they don’t have dreams or extraordinary concepts going around in their head, like ‘I need you more than want you; and I want you for all time.’ You can’t assume that a man isn’t a poet. And that’s really what the song is about.” On this #1 country/#3 pop hit, Webb paints a wonderfully evocative picture of loneliness, isolation, mundane realities, and all encompassing love. A more beautiful song has never been written. Webb went back to the “town” theme for Campbell’s 1968 #1 country single “Galveston,” where a romantic obsession was as powerful as crashing Gulf Coast sea waves.
Television was the perfect medium to display Campbell’s broad range of talent and charisma. He also was blessed with the type of handsomeness that attracted women, while not repelling their male counterparts. The “Glenn Campbell Goodtime Hour” ran on CBS from 1968 to 1972, with the series being cancelled at the same time Campbell’s chart success was waning in the early 1970s. He had a comeback country hit in 1974, going to #3 on the charts with his version of Pee Wee King’s “Bonaparte’s Retreat” and heard a single by Larry Weiss that year titled “Rhinestone Cowboy” that wasn’t a hit. Campbell liked the record and had no reservations when Capitol Records asked him to record it. The lyrics were a somewhat unusual combination of cynicism and triumph, but the spirited chorus gave Campbell his second round of major fame and his first #1 pop hit. He returned to #1 on the pop charts the following year with his cover of Allen Toussaint’s “Southern Nights.”
Like many performers, Campbell had to go through his stage of embarrassment before rehabilitating his image and being recognized as the legend he was. His drug fueled relationship with Tanya Tucker did him no favors and his 1990’s contemporary Christian phase seemed, to this nonbeliever, more like a marketing ploy than a true expression of faith through his art. Never known as a true album artist during his commercial peak, producer Julian Raymond began rehabilitating Campbell’s career in 2008 with the “Meet Glen Campbell” album. The formula was similar to how Rick Rubin brought fellow Arkansan Johnny Cash back to fame during the 1990s, using first rate material from a broad variety of genres to update the artist’s image. Raymond used production techniques that were reminiscent of Campbell’s classic 1960’s material, bridging the past and the present. His covers of Tom Petty’s “Walls” and Jackson Browne’s “These Days” were reminders of how powerful and effective a singer than Campbell could be.
Campbell returned to the spotlight in 2011 with his “Ghost on the Canvas” album with a superb title track written by Paul Westerberg. Concurrent with the release of the album, it was announced that Campbell had Alzheimer’s disease. The record’s opening lyric of “I know a place between life and death for you and me” packed a tremendous emotional punch giving the circumstances. For the rest of his life, Campbell seemed like a living ghost, a physical body singing words he may or may not have understood while surviving in a world he could no longer comprehend. Fortunately, his final albums, tours and the 2014 documentary film “I’ll Be Me” felt much more of a celebration of his remarkable life than an exploitation of his talents.
Julian Raymond in 2014, “Julian Raymond, “[Campbell] had a hard day of people asking him about Alzheimer’s and how he felt about it. He didn’t talk too much about it, but came up to me and said, ‘I don’t know what everybody’s worried about. It’s not like I’m going to miss anyone, anyway.’” That exchange inspired Campbell’s last great single, the 2014 release “I’m Not Gonna Miss You.” His many fans in all genres of music will miss his frequently underrated talent as a singer, guitarist, and music business personality. Campbell never forget his small-town Arkansas roots in the way that he related to fans and the personal warmth he always projected. I’m missing him a lot right now.