I may be a day or two late, but as I’d rather not write about the coming attraction of World War III (life’s too short – literally), I decided it’s never too late to pay tribute to the great Glen Campbell. His death at the age of 81 was attributed to the crippling effects of Alzheimer’s, which forced his retirement from performance and recording five years ago; but the passing of this unsung link between the once vehemently opposed worlds of Country and Rock brings to end a career that helped bridge a divide that had widened when Rock ‘n’ Roll took what it needed from C&W in the mid-50s.
A hybrid of many contemporaneous styles (as all the best musical genres usually are), Rock ‘n’ Roll possessed an outlaw element stolen from the Blues that Country, in its slow journey from hillbilly folk music to Grand Ole Opry conservatism, responded to with a reactionary redneck rage. From being the soundtrack of the poor white rural population, Country had become an audio comfort blanket for its audience, weighed down by sentimental schmaltz and insular wallowing in its own suffering. Rock ‘n’ Roll was younger, sexier and essentially black. Johnny Cash may have kept its original intent alive into the 1960s, but the British Invasion that sold American coal to a record-buying public oblivious of its own heritage made Country seem to be emblematic of the old world order.
Glen Campbell may have emanated from that old world order, but he was young enough to have been affected by changes to the musical landscape from the mid-50s onwards, and his skill on the fret-board carried him from Arkansas poverty to the profitable LA session scene of the 60s. He was a vital member of the so-called ‘Wrecking Crew’, the talented collective of musicians who provided the backing on virtually every great US pop hit outside of Motown, including the best of Phil Spector; Campbell played on records by everyone from Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley to Simon and Garfunkel, The Monkees, The Righteous Brothers. The Mamas & the Papas, Sonny & Cher and numerous others. One of the acts reliant on the Wrecking Crew’s ability to get the job done in the allocated studio time was The Beach Boys, and when Brian Wilson’s musical horizons began to widen beyond churning out surfing dirges on the grinding touring circuit, the resident Beach Boys’ genius stayed at home to write while Campbell filled in for him on the road.
Whilst making a decent living as a session musician, Campbell was simultaneously releasing his own records without much in the way of success. It wasn’t until Campbell started to mine the riches from the pen of songwriter and producer Jimmy Webb that he stumbled upon the kind of musical partnership that could yield the success he’d so far struggled to find as a solo artist. Despite his exposure to a different world in LA, Campbell still held onto his conservative outlook, declaring draft-card burners during the early years of the Vietnam War should be hanged, and greeting Jimmy Webb upon their first meeting with a curt ‘Get a hair-cut’. He also starred in an acting role alongside ultra-conservative Republican flag-waver John Wayne in 1969’s ‘True Grit’. However, as Country and Rock remained at loggerheads, Campbell found a middle ground in the Middle of the Road and helped pave the way for reconciliation.
Only when Bob Dylan returned from his two-year exile with ‘John Wesley Harding’, embracing a Country style that then surfaced in key works by The Byrds and The Band, did Country slowly make its peace with Rock ‘n’ Roll; solo artists such as Kris Kristofferson, Emmylou Harris, Neil Young and Gram Parsons, along with bands such as The Allman Brothers, America and The Eagles were able to have a foot in both camps as the 70s dawned, but it was Glen Campbell who pioneered the tricky route from Country to Rock and back again. His seminal collaborations with Jimmy Webb, peaking with the glorious ‘Wichita Lineman’, saw Campbell established as a star – in 1967 he scooped Grammys in both the Country and Pop categories – and he was rewarded with his own TV series, which included guests from Rock as well as Country. He also recorded a string of successful duets with another artist who managed to appeal to a wider audience than Country could traditionally call upon, the wondrous Bobbie Gentry.
By the mid-70s, Campbell was as regular a presence in the upper echelons of the US Hot 100 as he was in the specialist Country charts, hitting the top spot with ‘Rhinestone Cowboy’ in 1975 and again with ‘Southern Nights’ a couple of years later. Unfortunately, the trappings of mainstream success that had claimed many a rock star began to leave a mark on him, resulting in a serious cocaine habit, alcoholism, and a disastrous relationship with another Country act 22 years his junior, Tanya Tucker.
His faith appeared to come to his rescue in the 21st century and, like Johnny Cash before him, Campbell found that covering songs by contemporary acts brought his work to a new audience; his 2005 album ‘Meet Glen Campbell’ included numbers written by Green Day, Foo Fighters and U2. When he went public over his Alzheimer’s diagnosis in 2012, he embarked upon a farewell tour and recorded his final album, which was eventually released just a couple of months ago. The critics belatedly acknowledged the pivotal part he’d played in reuniting two musical genres with a shared lineage, and as his condition continued to deteriorate it was only a matter of time before he inevitably checked-out for good. That moment came two days ago. The last song he recorded was titled ‘I’m Not Gonna Miss You’, but plenty people are gonna miss him.
© The Editor