There wasn’t much that American singer-songwriter Glen Campbell couldn’t do, and with his death yesterday from complications of Alzheimer’s, his career has come into the spotlight once again. Besides his rather extensive musical catalog, the man was an actor and television host who helped shape the careers of countless fledgling artists with his work as a substantial session musician. His was a voice born from the earth and sweat of Middle America, a place where main roads were still firmly caked in dirt and country music soundtracked the minutes of the day.
Born in Billstown, Arkansas, a small community located south of the Ouachita National Forest, Campbell was the seventh son of 12 children and began playing guitar at a very young age. He seemed to have a preternatural gift for the instrument, helped in part by the teachings of his uncle, guitarist Eugene “Boo” Campbell. In 1954, he moved to Albuquerque and joined Dick Bills and the Sandia Mountain Boys, a band featuring his uncle. Some years later, he formed his own band, The Western Wranglers. But it wasn’t until he moved to Los Angeles in 1960 to begin work as a studio musician that his fortunes began to turn. He joined a rock band called The Champs (authors of the wildly popular song “Tequila”) and subsequently found a day job at publishing company American Music.
Through various connections, he soon became affiliated with a group of session musicians known as The Wrecking Crew—keyboardist Leon Russell, drummer Earl Palmer, saxophonist Steve Douglas, guitarist Tommy Tedesco, guitarist-bassist Carol Kaye and multi-instrumentalist Larry Knechtel. During his tenure with this group, he played on recordings by Bobby Darin, Ricky Nelson, Dean Martin, Nat King Cole, The Monkees, Nancy Sinatra, Merle Haggard, Jan and Dean, Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Ronnie Dove and Phil Spector.
In 1962, Campbell signed with Capitol Records and released a fairly successful first single, “Too Late to Worry, Too Blue to Cry,” but his subsequent songs just didn’t seem to resonate with people. In the following years, he would become a steady fixture on various TV variety shows, including “Star Route,” “Shindig!” and “Hollywood Jamboree.” From the end of 1964 to the early part of 1965, he was added to the touring band of The Beach Boys, where he filled in for Brian Wilson when needed. He even played guitar on their 1966 seminal record, “Pet Sounds”—although he would end that year as a touring member of Ricky Nelson’s band.
After Capitol considered dropping him because of low sales, Campbell teamed up with producer Al De Lory and released some of his most recognized songs. Their early collaborations include “Burning Bridges” and “Gentle on My Mind,” songs that found instant fame on the country charts. But his greatest hits were still on the horizon, and with De Lory’s help, he took songs written by Jimmy Webb and turned them into global country smashes. “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” “I Wanna Live,” “Galveston” and “Wichita Lineman” are among some of the most iconic songs to come out of the ‘6os, and they helped solidify Campbell’s position in the modern musical canon (although it should be noted that he continued this streak of monumental success well into the ’70s when he released what some people consider his signature song, “Rhinestone Cowboy”).
Known within the music industry as a phenomenal guitarist and songwriter, his work is spoken of in reverent tones and considered some of the finest examples of the ways country, pop and folk music can be intertwined. His voice was a gift to those who saw how perfectly he could bend melodies to his will and shape sounds into gorgeous bits of rhythmic wonder. Hearing these songs today, his ability to shift between genres is revelatory. For those people who only know him for a single song or two, the full scope of his music might come as a surprise. Even for those who know these records front to back, they still sound as relevant and graceful as the day they were released.
Campbell was an anomaly, a musician whose technical and emotional approach never felt compromised or false. It would have been easy for the grand orchestrations that often accompanied his acoustic narratives to bombard the listener with schmaltz and overt sentimentality, but he was always aware that there needed to be a grounding force among these sweeping movements. And his salt-of-the-earth musings provided just the right balance to offset any perceived disconnect between the erudite string arrangements and the stories of linemen and weary travelers.
Even this early in the wake of his passing, the contributions he made to music are being rediscovered and brought to the attention of a whole new generation of artists—which is as it should be, although it shouldn’t have taken his death for people to see just how much he gave to our collective musical consciousness. His words can still knock the wind from your lungs and conjure images of dusty roads and sequined suits. He was still making music as recently as 2014, when he won a Grammy for Best Country Song for “I’m Not Gonna Miss You,” which he co-wrote with producer Julian Raymond for the documentary “Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me.”
The world seems a few shades darker today with the knowledge that Campbell is gone. Even for those of us who didn’t live through the years of his biggest hits, his work still made an impact. We were exposed through parents, friends and assorted family members, and gained an understanding of why so many people consider him a master of his craft. No one in the intervening years has been able to mix and adapt those sounds quite as well as he did. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go listen to “Wichita Lineman” for the 100th time.
Joshua Pickard covers local and national music, film and other aspects of pop culture. You can contact him on Facebook, Twitter or by email. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.