John Sieger
Sieger on Songs

The Surprising Legacy of Glen Campbell

Songs like “Wichita Lineman” put the art in pop artist.

By - Aug 17th, 2017 06:12 pm
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Glen Campbell

Glen Campbell

I know a pretty hard core punk rocker who liked Glen Campbell. Seriously. He got all excited when Glen covered a couple Paul Westerberg songs on his 2011 album Ghost In The Canvas. My mother was a fan, too, she loved his voice. That’s a pretty wide base — so what gives?

Campbell, who left us last week after a long, public battle with Alzheimer’s was a baffling figure. Polished and down home at the same time, his “aw shucks” hokum seemed at odds with the virtuosity that made him a very busy member of The Wrecking Crew, LA’s legendary, famously skilled session band. He toured with The Beach Boys when Brian Wilson gave up the road and rocked his striped shirt. Craftsmanship will take you a long way. Add square-jawed handsomeness and an absolute refusal to tighten up under the klieg lights and there goes 45 million records flying out the record shop doors. But he might have reached that number with just his voice.

The older I get the more I’ve liked his singing, but I didn’t always buy all the way in. There was something in it that reminded me of an overgrown Boy Scout. But my resistance was situational; put him together with an undeniable song like “Wichita Lineman,” and I was right there with my mom and the punk rocker. Jimmy Webb often seemed to be trying too hard, pushing for masterpieces, but in this instance he delivered something that sounded effortless. It’s a compact 3:00 song that unfolds to reveal a vast, sweeping prairie of loneliness. The lineman’s perspective from atop that utility pole conjures a landscape director John Ford might have created.

The lyrics hint at a little bit of eavesdropping… is he tapping a private line or just clairvoyant?  Whatever the case may be the declaration “I need you more than want you — and I want you for all time” is a nice way to say something other songwriters might spend a couple verses on.

I am a lineman for the county
And I drive the main road
Searchin’ in the sun for another overload
I hear you singin’ in the wire,
I can hear you through the whine
And the Wichita lineman is still on the line

I know I need a small vacation
But it don’t look like rain
And if it snows that stretch down south won’t ever stand the strain
And I need you more than want you,
And I want you for all time
And the Wichita lineman is still on the line

And I need you more than want you,
And I want you for all time
And the Wichita lineman is still on the line

© Jimmy Webb

Sitting in the middle of the song, Campbell’s solo is short but sweet, with echoes of Duane Eddy. It does the job — when you listen to it you can see the phone poles all the way to the horizon. There is a also a little harmonic trick hidden in the music, It’s called regression, if you must know. It’s heard in the unexpected and highly dramatic chord at the end of the third line in each verse. In the first it makes the word “overload” sound like the end of the world. That’s another Webb touch.

This all happened at an interesting time, when country music was looking over its shoulder at Bob Dylan and other artists who were disrupting the status quo. Glen Campbell’s first hit was “Gentle On My Mind,” a wordy and affecting tune from John Hartford. Webb would go on to create the long-winded  “McArthur’s Park,” masterpiece or unbearable pretension, depending on who you ask. Don’t ask me. He also went on to write a long book on songwriting I’d recommend for it’s good parts. I like him best when he’s to the point.

Campbell went on to star with John Wayne in the original True Grit. With his “man of few words” persona, The Duke could almost have written this song. Campbell played the young Texas Ranger who rides in somewhere in the middle of the movie. Typecasting you would say if you ignored the tabloid chapter of his life. I have no problem doing that, because the rest of his biography is much more interesting, with his Arkansas sharecropper beginning, as one of 12 children. He got a $5.00 guitar from his dad when he was five years old and had it down in no time. He left Arkansas at 16 and never looked back, playing in his uncle’s band and then in Hollywood.He was one one of the Shindogs, the house band on the TV show “Shindig” that featured Billy Preston, Leon Russell and James Burton. That is a nice collection of talent.

So there he is and will always stay, smack dab in the middle of the road. Glen Campbell, both generic and unique, showman and nice guy, and amazingly, watched on his show by 50 million people. He was viral before viral was a thing. Glen Campbell was a Pop Artist with the emphasis on the second word. His long and poignant twilight will be forgotten soon enough, but he’ll be remembered for a long time for his amazing talent.

4 thoughts on “Sieger on Songs: The Surprising Legacy of Glen Campbell”

  1. Mike says:

    Absolutely beautiful tribute.

  2. Howard says:

    Beautifully written.

  3. Christina Zawadiwsky says:

    Glen Campbell’s recent death was sad, but I saw the film in which he toured while suffering from Altzheimers and/or dementia, finally forgetting his own daugher’s name but still being able to give a great performance onstage.

  4. julilly kohler says:

    Yes. that last amazing tour shows where music lives– and it’s not in the brain. It’s somewhere much deeper.

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