Campbell is Back. But is he Cool?
by John Adamian - November 27, 2003
As a studio musician, Glen Campbell played on recordings
by everyone from Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra to the Beach Boys.
Glen Campbell often played the role of the soft-hearted country boy in the big city.
There are a few things you probably donīt know about the career of the seemingly clean-cut, all-American country-pop singer and entertainer Glen Campbell. There was the time, for instance, while flying first class, that Campbell got in a drunken fight with an Indonesian diplomat and threatened to call his friend, then-President Ronald Reagan, and have him bomb Jakarta. That was a good one. And there were the days Campbell spent snorting cocaine, Scarface-style, and reading the bible until he was in a paranoid delusional state. He'd carry on like some possessed televangelist -- quoting scripture and hypocritically hurling accusations of immorality and sinfulness at friends and family. It's a rich visual. And you might not know that in 1969, Campbell sold more records than the Beatles. The lurid stories come from Campbell's 1994 autobiography, called (what else?) Rhinestone Cowboy . But overzealous coke head and ranting drunk are only the sad sparkle on Campbell's whole starry package. He was also known as a first-rate guitarist, a maker of jingles, a studio singer and session man, a sometime movie actor, a variety-show host, an avid golfer, a born-again gospel singer and a crossover star. Now -- though it could be a bit premature -- we may be adding "newly minted darling of the indie music set" to the long list. With the release of the four-CD set, Glen Campbell, The Legacy [1961-2002] , Capitol Records is making the claim that Campbell's reputation is getting a long-overdue re-assessment by critics, fans and musicians. And they may be on to something. It's just hard to know if the attention now is of the he's-so-uncool-that-he's-cool variety, or whether serious music fans are finally actually hearing this music apart from its often gaudy packaging. Though chart-watchers haven't seen much of Campbell since the late-'70s, he's been busy, doing around 150 shows a year. Now 67 and a born-again Christian, he spends his days golfing in between gigs in Branson, Missouri -- the family-friendly Vegas of middle America -- where he just completed seven weeks of shows. Just back from a round of golf, from his home in Arizona, Campbell spoke with the Advocate . Campbell is a hard man to get on the phone. After weeks of e-mails with two publicists -- getting through to Campbell's personal handler was like gaining access to the inner sanctum of some reclusive royalty -- we finally caught Campbell, and the whole conversation almost dissolved before it started. When I told him who I was and where I was calling from Campbell practically insisted that he had just gotten off the phone with me. That sort of throws the interviewer off and trips up the first line of questions. "The Hartford Advocate , I just got through talking to somebody from there," he said, with a voice that sounded like he's the kind of person who grins as he speaks. "Maybe it was someone from one of the other papers in the area," I said. A half-century of doing interviews and touring has turned the names of cities and newspapers into a blur perhaps. And one senses that rather than fielding questions about his career, Campbell would rather talk about something else. But on this day, it turns out, his golf game has gone to crap. "Oh, it's terrible, I started off birdie-birdie and then I shoot 41 on the front, I said 'That's silly.'" Not having set foot on a golf course, I steer the conversation to the outrageous disclosures in his autobiography. "I regret that I did it all," Campbell says of his drugs, drink and tabloid days. "I was young and stupid." Ask the man himself about how he achieved his success and it sounds like talent and fame were just the smile of fortune. "I was very blessed to get a bunch of good songs to record," says Campbell, explaining, "You know, if you ain't got the horses, you ain't gonna pull the wagon. [pause] The songs are the horses." (He really says stuff like that.) Indeed, Campbell pulled his wagon with other people's horses. He first heard two of his biggest hits -- "Rhinestone Cowboy" and "Gentle on My Mind" -- being performed by other people on the radio. "I [almost wrecked] my car when I heard 'Rhinestone Cowboy,'" he says, with an Arkansas drawl that remains thick. "I pulled over to the side of the road until they [announced what it was]." He liked it so much he had to record it himself. Latching onto winning material was the challenge. Campbell says he never was much of a songwriter despite having penned a few hits. He was content to fashion hits out of other people's compositions. "I just wanted to get a good song and just do it the best way that I thought it should be done," says Campbell. Campbell breaks into song a lot during conversation, whether to summon up an old chorus or to simulate a guitar sound. Discussing his extensive work as a studio guitar player, Campbell said, "I was a rhythm player -- just ba-down , ba-down ." His early life was filled with hardship. But a childhood of hardscrabble poverty in Arkansas (he was one of 12 children in a sharecropper's family), didn't keep Campbell from getting his first guitar from a Sears catalog. With the help of an uncle, Campbell learned to play, often skipping school to practice. In the 1950s Campbell made his way to New Mexico as a teenager where he apprenticed as a gigging musician in rowdy clubs (he often had to hide under tables to avoid injuring his playing hands during bar brawls). He went on to Los Angeles. Before becoming a household name, Campbell was earning about $60 per session as a studio musician. He recorded with everyone -- from Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra (who mistook Campbell's star-struck glances for an unwanted come-on), and the Beach Boys to Wayne Newton and Bobby Darin. He was part of gun-slinging producer Phil Spector's crack team of players, the Wrecking Crew. In 1963, he played on 586 songs. That level of productivity basically demanded that Campbell do whatever was asked of him in the studio -- and he couldn't even read music. Under his own name, Campbell's recording career didn't really win much attention initially. His first records on Capitol -- 1963's Big Bluegrass Special and 1964's The Astounding 12-String Guitar of Glen Campbell -- billed him as a bluegrass act or as an instrumental guitar hot shot. In the meantime, Campbell played on numerous Beach Boys recordings, and he even took the part of "Brian Wilson," dressing up like him and singing and playing his part on a 1965 Beach Boys tour after Wilson had a nervous breakdown. It wasn't until 1967 and "Gentle On My Mind" that Campbell started to shine like a star in his own right. Setting aside just for a moment the whole "Rhinestone Cowboy" era, Campbell -- an icon of semi-sophisticated countryish pop in the '60s and '70s -- is mainly famous for his tender, aching and somewhat schmaltzy interpretations of the great songs of the under-appreciated songwriting genius Jimmy Webb. "Wichita Lineman," "Galveston," "By the Time I Get to Phoenix" -- they're all Jimmy Webb songs. Though countless others have recorded them, we know Webb's music through Campbell's renditions (Webb is also the man behind the enigmatic and plain-weird song "MacArthur Park," [Who but a genius would write a song with the line "Someone left a cake out in the rain"?] that made an unlikely disco hit for Donna Summer). But there's more to the career of Glen Campbell than his role as the interpreter of Webb's songs (though his success with Webb's songs -- which plugged the names of cities in Arizona, Texas and Kansas -- made Campbell an icon in those states), and it points to a genius for marketing to the heartland. It's just one of the professional choices he made -- choices that, depending on how you look at it, were either calculated brilliance or stupid luck. The guy hosted the legendary TV music show Shindig! , along with his own variety show, The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour , and he also appeared alongside John Wayne in the 1969 movie True Grit . So Campbell was no Bob Dylan. He didn't shatter the way that music had been made for generations before. Most of his biggest tunes were with other people's songs -- songs that, in many cases had already been recorded and released by other artists. He was no Elvis Presley either. He didn't inject sex appeal, energy and excitement into his interpretations of older material. No one would say Campbell approached the stylish cool and effortless phrasing of Frank Sinatra either. And Campbell never had the raw authenticity of Hank Williams. Still, Campbell did sell millions of records. So what was it that made him so popular, and yet somehow so indistinct? It's more than simply being a crossover artist -- someone who bridged the styles of pop, rock, folk and country. What's kept Campbell from being mentioned in the same breath as those other legends may be that he was too many things. That Campbell turned himself into a country-pop Forrest Gump, popping up in the background of just about every musical milestone of the era, makes a kind of sense when you consider his career. Whether it was blankness, selflessness or something else, few people -- no matter how talented -- achieve such mega-stardom without working willingly to oil the star-maker machinery, and Campbell was no different. Despite his professed contempt for the emptiness of fame and the vulgarity of the entertainment industry, Campbell would tour ceaselessly, host TV shows, appear in films, and lend his glitter to celebrity events, always worried that the door opening to stardom would soon slam shut. "I have always been very aware of public relations and pretty willing to do whatever anyone asked if it would help my career," he writes in his autobiography. In the turbulent 1960s, he did a few politically tinged songs too. "I had no opinion about the [Vietnam] war except that I supported the United States government and whatever its leaders decided to do," he writes in his book. It's ironic then that his hit "Galveston" -- a song about a frightened soldier, far from home and longing for safety -- has been interpreted as an anti-war song. And Campbell's rendition of Buffy Sainte-Marie's adamantly peacenik "Universal Soldier" is further indication that Campbell was simply singing what he expected would sell. But his star eventually faded. After 1975's Rhinestone Cowboy he mostly disappeared, aside from some lurid appearances in tabloid headlines for a fling with a much-younger Tanya Tucker during his days of high-profile romance and alcohol and cocaine excess. The release of the box set and the renewed attention forces one to wonder what the music of Glen Campbell meant to the millions who bought his records, and what the music means today. You can't say that the renewed interest has distilled Campbell's work down to its essence, partly because there isn't one. His name doesn't stand for country, rock or pop. If anything, Campbell's music signifies crossover: the vague twang of country -- with its strong sense of place -- burnished with layers of production, weepy strings and subdued horns. At the time, it was the musical equivalent of country folks putting on their best duds so as not to come off like hicks while visiting town -- a farmer getting dressed up for a dance. But to many listeners now buying up old Glen Campbell records, that mix of town and country is exactly what seems real. Earlier this year, in their book Heartaches by the Number , music writers David Cantwell and Bill Friskics-Warren mapped out a list of the 500 greatest country singles of all time, and the props the two gave to Campbell were noteworthy. Four of his songs made the list -- "By the Time I Get to Phoenix," "Gentle on My Mind" and "Wichita Lineman," with "Galveston" coming the highest at number 56. As is the case any time someone speaks up in praise of Campbell's work, the writers took a defensive tone. One's efforts to champion Campbell's music are often met with incredulity, if not outright hostility. Campbell's music -- because of the lush string arrangements that smacked of slickness -- has riled country purists, while being despised at the same time by pop and rock snobs. One thing about being loved by middle America: It often means you're hated by everyone else (think John Mellencamp). But America bought his records. And inevitably the all-consuming appetite for pop nostalgia comes back to re-assess that which came before, sniffing for an unexploited scrap of the past to chew on. Now it's Campbell's turn. Recently British MC/producers Rikki and Daz (purveyors of a style called "scumpop") made a remix/remake of "Rhinestone Cowboy" which hit the charts in the UK. Campbell also recently showed up on Livin', Lovin', Losin': Songs of the Louvin Brothers , a tribute to the heroes of close harmony. And before all this a few other artists had tipped their hats to Campbell. In the early '90s, the bombastic Chicago trio Urge Overkill covered "Wichita Lineman," even if it was dripping with irony. As did New Orleans funk legends the Meters (yes, they made it funky). With the concept of hip having basically been obliterated by too many people poking at it, one wouldn't want to go so far as to assert that Glen Campbell is now cool. We live in a post-cool world, but maybe that's why this is Campbell's time. The next best thing to actual coolness is to dig up some bit of culture that hasn't lost its value by being over-handled in recent circulation, and it's safe to say that it simply may be time for Campbell to be rediscovered --or to be archeologically revealed --in the same way that so many other artists of the '60s and '70s have been unearthed in discarded piles of LP records in cardboard boxes at thrift stores or yard sales. But the turning back of the times, stylistically, might mean something else too. In an age of heightened concerns about national security, people tend to yearn for a sense of the timeless to offset the sense of upheaval. Glen Campbell is the musical equivalent of comfort food. If foodies no longer need be ashamed of loving macaroni and cheese, it's probably now safe for hipsters to sing Glen Campbell in the shower. For those testing the waters for a full-fledged Campbell revival, the release recently of the Kentucky band My Morning Jacket's major-label debut It Still Moves , with its distinctly "Gentle on My Mind"-feel in places, is further evidence that Campbell's music is seeping in for a new generation of musicians. As Jim James, singer, songwriter and co-producer of My Morning Jacket, sees it, Campbell's was the golden era of record-making, complete with its over-the-top studio effects and elaborate arrangements. "I'm a huge fan of that production, that classic '70s country sound -- the huge vocals, ... and just the way that they really knew how to produce a record back then," says James, who was reached by phone from a stop on the band's tour. "I absolutely love 'Gentle on My Mind.' An ex-girlfriend of mine put 'Gentle on My Mind' on a mixed tape she made for me one time, and I just listened to that song, over and over and over and over and over and over and over again. I've seen old concert footage of Glen, and I've always been impressed by his big voice and his delivery and the way his records sounded." It might be a stretch, but another sign of the reach of Campbell's sound is in the way that many newer rock bands are eschewing the backbeat -- that snare-drum-on-two-and-four litmus test of rock -- in favor of a more steady-rolling offbeat feel, as the of-the-moment Southern rock revivalists Kings of Leon do on their song "Joe's Head." Summing it up in typically terse fashion, Campbell in our interview says the beat is "kind of like a boom-chuck-a ." A drum beat or a box set may not seem to constitute a revival. But we don't get to decide what it is from our era that future generations will find meaningful. Consider the career arc of the Beach Boys. A dozen or so years ago, the Beach Boys were known mostly for their clean-cut image and snappy songs celebrating surfing, girls and the glories of the internal-combustion engines. But something happened. In the culture at large, singer, songwriter and arranger Brian Wilson went from being the pudgy Beach Boy to having cachet as a genius producer, mastermind of curious studio textures and pioneer of odd instruments. What happened to the Beach Boys might be about to happen to Glen Campbell. It's precisely the fact that Campbell's music was so blatantly un-hip, stilted and over-produced -- with sweeping strings -- on the surface that makes it stand out now. It's like Campbell's music has been mummified in a protective layer of dorkiness. Here's Jim James from My Morning Jacket again. "I've always loved that about that era of music ... to me [the massive reverb and strings are] my favorite things about that era and I've tried to incorporate some of that into what we do," says James. But no matter how far out you're willing to go in defense of Campbell's oeuvre, eventually you have to accept that a lot of the Rhinestone Cowboy's recordings were melodramatic, stiff, overblown and silly. The marriage of country twang and a disco beat that characterized his comeback with "Rhinestone Cowboy" and "Country Boy" -- songs that romanticize the plight of the soft-hearted yokel trying to make it in the big city -- was not the most-inspired stylistic pairing. The Glen Campbell, The Legacy [1961-2002] box set does its best to present Campbell's solo career as something worth digging deep into, but only about 60 percent of the material on the set asks for repeated listens. When asked about the input he gave in assembling the set, Campbell says he told them to "throw everything but the kitchen sink in it." That may be part of the problem. There's some sticky syrup and chunks of corn and cheese gumming up the works. By the time he gets to "Arkansas," early on disc three, you'll be sleeping, and the trading-verses duet/medley with Anne Murray on "I Say A Little Prayer/By the Time I get to Phoenix" is inexcusable but for its strangeness. It's safe to say that only the most committed excavators of pop music's infractions of the past will be delving into Campbell's post-1978 material for at least 10 years or so. Like the man himself, Campbell's music remains something of a mystery to us. It was everywhere and everything at once -- pop and country; slick and backwards. It's plainspoken and earnest to a degree that is unfathomable to us today. What might be lost on first-time listeners to the nostalgia-tinged and re-packaged sounds of Glen Campbell is the extent to which his music was already something of a recycled product the first time around. ► Home