This one stings.
Unlike Johnny Cash, or Merle, or Waylon or George or Tammy or any of the other country greats whose music I didn’t come to know and appreciate until later in life, Glen Campbell goes way back, to basically ground zero of my memories. My dad, who grew up in the 30s and 40s and was primarily a big band guy, LOVED Glen Campbell. I can vividly recall the eerie, echo-y guitar of Wichita Lineman playing from my his stereo console in the living room of the home we lived in until I was five. I remember it because for some reason, that guitar scared the hell out of me. It sounded ghostly. I hated when he played it (Now? it’s one of my favorite all-time songs). On the other hand, I can remember him cheerfully singing along with Gentle On My Mind, and telling me as we rolled into Phoenix on a two week road-trip vacation that “This is that city Glen Campbell sings about!”
Through the late 60s and well into the 70s, Glen Campbell was a part of America’s pop-celebrity tapestry. He acted in movies (check him out with John Wayne in “True Grit”…he’s pretty damned good). He had more hits (Rhinestone Cowboy, Southern Nights), a popular variety TV show (The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour–which he used to, as he put it, “Put every country act I could on television”–despite criticism at the time that he was “too pop to be country”…yep, that old finger has been pointing at country music upstarts forever) and, he hits the skids (a few marriages and a tumultuous relationship to a very young Tanya Tucker, not to mention a raging addiction to cocaine).
In the 80s, as his presence on radio and TV waned, Glen quietly got his life together. It took time and wasn’t easy–a 2003 mug shot following a drunk driving arrest was one of the internet’s first viral photos–but he remained married to Kim Woolen (whom he wed in 1982 and had three children with) and toured frequently in the decades that followed.
Of course, his battle with Alzheimer’s has been well-documented. As someone who has seen this disease close-up (my mother struggled with it the final years of her life) he fought it well, continuing to record and to tour–even when, at times, he needed prompting to remember not just song lyrics but where he was at.
By family accounts, his ability to play guitar was one of the last things to go. And man, could be play. Just go to YouTube and do a search for Glen Campbell/guitar, and you’ll see the guy wasn’t just a charming, good lookin’ dude with a great voice. He was the real deal–a guitarist good enough to play with everyone from the Beach Boys to Roy Clark to Frank Sinatra.
But at the end of the day, that voice. If anything matched Glen Campbell’s guitar chops, it was his voice. He hit notes effortlessly, but never just because he could. At his best, Glen used that voice to draw us into the exact emotion of the song. Listen to the way he pleads, “Galveston, O Galveston/I’m so afraid of dying” on the song of the same name. He isn’t a guy singing about a young man fighting in Vietnam…he IS that young man.
My dad was a singer, a damned good one too–he sang with local big bands in the 40s…way before my time. But he sang around the house all the time and he always appreciated a good vocalist, no matter the era. Like most of his generation, he wasn’t crazy about a lot of 1960s pop and rock, but occasionally, he made exceptions that used to surprise me and, in retrospect have proven to be remarkably dead-on. He loved Roy Orbison, Dusty Springfield and The Beatles. He thought Janis Joplin looked “like hell, but she can really sing” (I remember him saying those exact words). He owned Marvin Gaye’s album, What’s Goin’ On.
He also really appreciated the talents of a young singer/guitar-picker from Arkansas.
And he was spot-on about that, too.
RIP Glen. If there are concerts in heaven, look for my dad. He’ll be in the audience, I’m sure, singing along.