Glen Campbell: the guitar prodigy represented the best of pop and country

Categories: The Guardian

The man Dolly Parton called ‘one of the greatest musicians’, who played with Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley, was also one of America’s most relatable stars

Mark Guarino
Wednesday 9 August 2017 02.25 EDT

Glen Campbell may always be associated with hits such as Rhinestone Cowboy and Wichita Lineman and statistics like 50 million in record sales, but the legacy he leaves behind is one even more expansive, spanning musical genres, time periods and even instruments.

The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum CEO, Kyle Young, told the Guardian: “Had he ‘only’ played guitar and never voiced a note, he would have spent a lifetime as one of America’s most consequential recording musicians. Had he never played guitar and ‘only’ sung, his voice would rank with American music’s most riveting, expressive, and enduring.”

In an emailed statement, Dolly Parton called Campbell “one of the greatest voices that ever was in the business”. “He was also one of the greatest musicians. A lot of people don’t realize that, but he could play anything,” she said.

Campbell, who died on Tuesday, aged 81, of Alzheimer’s disease, was a guitar prodigy at age 10. He spent his childhood on an Arkansas farm with no electricity, where he was the seventh son in a family of eight boys and four girls. Not one for manual labor, he left at age 16 and worked the south-west honky-tonk circuit for eight years until landing in Los Angeles. It was the early 1960s and his impressive guitar skills earned him a place in the Wrecking Crew, a collection of LA session musicians who played on hundreds of recordings for the era’s biggest names – Nat King Cole, Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Phil Spector, Sam Cooke, Dean Martin, Simon and Garfunkel, Jan and Dean, the Beach Boys, and many others.

His guitar touched the landmark recordings of his time. That’s his rhythm line on Sinatra’s Strangers in the Night, his comeback hit from 1966; he played bubblegum riffs for the Monkees; his guitar rings out on Viva Las Vegas by Presley and, alongside his voice, on the Beach Boys’ landmark album Pet Sounds. His association with Brian Wilson was particularly fortuitous. The Beach Boys auteur co-wrote Guess I’m Dumb, Campbell’s first single. Even though the song failed to chart, Campbell joined the band for a five-month tour in 1964-65 where he replaced Wilson, playing his bass and singing his falsetto leads, after Wilson suffered a breakdown and refused to go on the road.

All that experience meant, by 1967, Campbell was a different kind of country artist. Despite a few attempts to go solo during the Wrecking Crew years, it took Campbell’s association with songwriter Jimmy Webb where he forged his own territory between country and pop. Songs like Wichita Lineman, By the Time I Get to Phoenix, Galveston, and Where’s the Playground Susie told strong narratives, were draped in melancholy and, through the use of stirring string arrangements, transported the listener into three-minute dramas that had cinematic sweep.

Campbell credited the fact that he and Webb grew up within 150 miles of each another as one of the reasons why they had similar sensibilities.

“That’s what we grew up with – the good songs, the good lyrics, the good big-band stuff. I miss that era,” he told this writer in 2005. Webb’s “melodies and chord progressions were as good as anything I’d ever heard”.

As the Woodstock generation emerged later that decade and tastes changed, Campbell remained deceptively clean-cut despite his own demons. He was the type of star the crosscurrent of America could relate to. While his peers Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, and other country stars claimed to be outlaws, Campbell’s songs were middle-of-the-road relatable, and often cast in a sad light.

Charlie Daniels said in an emailed statement that Campbell “filled a niche in American music that very few people have ever reached … He represented the best of the pop and the best of country, and he pulled people in from both sides. It was a great thing for country music, and frankly, for pop music”.

Campbell racked up 48 country hits and 34 pop hits under his belt between 1967 and 1980 – a remarkable accomplishment, considering such versatility in reaching both audiences predated the new country trend that Garth Brooks and others would develop in the early 1990s. Like Cash, Campbell hosted a popular television show that defined genres in the artists it showcased. When disco dominated the pop charts, he showed an uncanny ability to adapt by releasing Southern Nights, the Allen Toussaint song redone with a stomping dance beat, and Rhinestone Cowboy, which became ubiquitous at dance clubs and roller rinks across middle America.

“He was a multimedia star before almost anyone else – music, film, television, he mastered all of it with a totally unpretentious charm and joy,” said singer-songwriter Cait Brennan.

Once the hits dried up, Campbell struggled with alcoholism and turbulent marriage battles. He also became a born-again Christian and recorded religious albums while never cutting back on touring. By the late 1990s, he discovered a new generation of younger artists were citing him as an influence – partly due to a massive reissue campaign by EMI/Capital, but also to a new wave of interest in Americana music spurred on by artists such as Dwight Yoakam, Freedy Johnston, Michelle Shocked, and REM, who all happened to cover Wichita Lineman.

Songwriter Peter Himmelman said: “There are so many songwriters and players wondering how to ‘make it’ in today’s music industry. It’s not hard – just sing, write, and play your ass off like Glen Campbell, one of the greatest American music-makers ever.”

In fact, Campbell’s 2010 album, Ghost on the Canvas, released following his Alzheimer’s diagnosis, features songs written for him by latter-day rock statesmen Robert Pollard of Guided by Voices, Paul Westerberg of the Replacements, Jakob Dylan, among others, and features guitars by Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins and Rick Nielsen of Cheap Trick. Campbell waited until this year to release Adiós, his final album, which came out in June.

On that album, for one more time, Campbell turned to the songs of his old friend, Jimmy Webb, among others including Bob Dylan, Fred Neil, and Willie Nelson. The songs hold true to his early days, when AM radio emphasized songs, not the sound.

“I felt my music wasn’t aiming at anybody. Everything I was doing was because it was a good song,” he told this writer in 2005. “Music is music. It doesn’t matter if I am trying to aim at country or trying to aim at pop. I am just trying to do a song the best possible way I can.”


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