Anyone who has read this blog for a while knows that country music is not my sweet spot. That said, I don’t hate it, I just can’t live there. But there have been a few country artists I thought were pretty cool. Glen Campbell was one of them.
The last time I saw Glen Campbell perform was on the TV news show 60 Minutes. This was in 2012 after he’d been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. It was kinda sad to watch as they showed him performing, with his daughter reminding him that “we just did that song.”
If you didn’t grow up with his music, understand that Campbell was a force in both music and television in the Sixties and Seventies. (He even acted in the original True Grit (with John Wayne) in 1969.)
But how did this country boy from whistle-stop Billstown, Arkansas get started? In addition to the classic “I picked cotton” Southern story, he also started picking the guitar at the age of four. By the time he was six he was playing on radio stations.
By the time he was 18, in 1954, he was touring the South in bands. By 1960, he’d moved to Los Angeles to become a studio musician. He became part of a group of studio musicians known as The Wrecking Crew. This loose conglomeration played on just about every record cut in LA in the Sixties and Seventies. (There is a good documentary about them you should check out.)
The interesting thing about Campell is that the average person knows him as a good pop/country singer who dabbles in guitar. I think of him the other way around. He took the guitar quite seriously. (You don’t get to be a studio musician otherwise.) He had good influences, saying that “Django Reinhardt was the most awesome player I ever heard.”
And so here’s the first reason I like the guy. He was an outstanding guitar player. Songwriter Jimmy Webb said, “He played with all kinds of genres, with different instrumentation and different styles. If it was a just and righteous world, Glen would be credited as one of the great, seminal influences of all time. He was a secret weapon in the armory of Sixties record producers.”
Check this out:
Campbell launched a solo career in the early Sixties with modest regional success. He even toured as a member of the Beach Boys for a while, even playing on Pet Sounds.
In 1966, Glen heard a song by country singer John Hartford on the radio and immediately wanted to record it. Gathering together members of the Wrecking Crew, he cut a demo of the song for his producer. But his producer heard the raw demo, loved it, cleaned it up and released it.
Released in 1967, “Gentle On My Mind” garnered Campbell his first two Grammy Awards:
Campbell was an overnight sensation. He teamed up with the aforementioned Jimmy Webb, himself no slouch. In 1968, per Wikipedia, “Time magazine acknowledged Webb’s range, proficiency, and gift for strong, varied rhythms, inventive structures, and rich, sometimes surprising harmonies.”
Just a few short months after “Gentle On My Mind,” Campbell released his version of Webb’s “By The Time I Get To Phoenix.” (Johnny Rivers had had a hit with it a few years earlier.) Is this a country song? A pop song? Either way, this song about Webb’s breakup with his girlfriend is a great song:
Glen Campbell was by now so popular they did what they always did on American TV back then – gave him his own variety show. This show ran for a couple of years. Interestingly, when I did my piece on Cream, I featured a clip from his show where he introduces them. Turns out he was a hip enough guy to appreciate what they were doing and could probably have gone toe-to-toe with Clapton.
In 1968, Campell again recorded a Jimmy Webb song, “Wichita Lineman.” Love this song. It’s evocative as hell and it’s been covered by pretty much everybody. The BBC referred to it as “one of those rare songs that seem somehow to exist in a world of its own – not just timeless but ultimately outside of modern music.”
And I need you more than want you,
And I want you for all time
And the Wichita lineman
Is still on the line
Campbell later drifted more away from pop and more deeply into the country charts. And also, BTW, into a serious cocaine habit, which fueled a few tabloid headlines. Interestingly, I recently found out he and his family were good friends with Alice Cooper. They both got high, found sobriety, found God, played golf together. Who knew? Alice speaks here if you’re curious. (According to Cooper, Eddie Van Halen tried to get a guitar lesson with Campbell.)
Glen Campell won 10 Grammy Awards, 10 Academy of Country Music Awards, and in 2005, was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
He died on August 8, 2017 at the age of 81.