February 19, 2015
Credit: Lisa Lake/Getty Images
Glen Campbell’s “I’m Not Gonna Miss You,” a Best Original Song nominee at this Sunday’s Academy Awards, begins with piano chords that evoke, and then countermand, the pulse-quickening piano that opens the singer’s best-known recording, “Rhinestone Cowboy.” A pop-and-country chart-topper forty years ago this summer, “Rhinestone Cowboy” bemoans the “load of compromises” and other obstacles that stand between people and their star-spangled ambitions. The song’s specific goal is pop celebrity, but the music invites us to insert our own out-of-reach American dreams, and to sing along with a chorus that, obstacles abruptly forgotten, is pure success, all anthem. By contrast, the heavy, exhausted piano that begins “I’m Not Gonna Miss You” is stripped of any brightness or optimism, as Campbell, who in 2011 was given a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease, acknowledges that he will soon be unable to recognize, or even to recall, the people and life he’s loved. Hence the heartbreaking refrain: “I’m not gonna miss you.”
After decades in which he was more likely to gain attention for struggles with alcohol and drug addiction than for his music, and after a period of country-music exile in Branson, Missouri, in the nineties, Campbell began inching toward a late-in-life second act with his 2005 induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Three years later, he released a well-regarded comeback album, “Meet Glen Campbell.” A farewell concert tour, documented in the 2014 film “Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me,” provided him poignant victory laps. “I’m Not Gonna Miss You,” from the soundtrack and co-written by Campbell and his producer Julian Raymond, won a Grammy for Best Country Song earlier this month. It’s a moving coda to a major career—one that many critics have only just begun to fully appreciate.
Glowing takes on Campbell’s genre-bending recording career are more common than they used to be, but they’re belated. In the late sixties and early seventies, Campbell was ubiquitous, frequently guest starring on TV variety series and hosting his own, “The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour,” for four seasons. He acted on the big screen in 1969’s “True Grit” and, less memorably, in 1970’s “Norwood,” and his hit singles were a constant presence on multiple radio formats. He won an armful of Grammys. In 1968, he was the Country Music Association’s Entertainer of the Year.
He was not admired by critics. Campbell’s emergence as a country-pop star coincided with the rise of rock criticism, just then codifying around a clutch of aesthetic rules-of-thumb, now known as “rockism.” These rules include a preference for “authenticity” over artifice and an overriding admiration for rebellion and masculinity. Campbell, who wrote none of his iconic hits, and who favored studio-perfected pop arrangements (with orchestral backing, no less), was typically dismissed as middle-of-the-road by critics—when he wasn’t being ignored altogether. Not one of his albums from that time was reviewed in Rolling Stone, for example, and in the 1979 edition of that magazine’s record guide, the only Campbell albums to receive higher than two (out of five) star rankings were his several greatest-hits collections. Those were awarded three stars.
Most of today’s critical trends are breaking Campbell’s way. The notion that what’s in the middle of the road can be inviting and necessary, rather than inherently inferior to what’s edgy and on the edges, is increasingly accepted as common sense. Crossover country acts are nearly as likely to inspire serious critical discussion as eye rolling. More and more, it is understood that you can’t tell the story of American popular music without Glen Campbell.
Campbell was making significant contributions to that story for years before most listeners had ever heard his name. Born into a musical family outside tiny Delight, Arkansas, in 1937, he moved to Albuquerque to play guitar in an uncle’s country swing band when he just fourteen, and by 1960 had made his way to Los Angeles, where he became an in-demand session guitarist while simultaneously trying to launch a solo career.
If Campbell had arrived in California a few years earlier, he might have tried to make it as a straight country act. If he’d shown up a couple of years later, after the British Invasion, he might have turned rock. Partly because he arrived between these eras, he wound up doing a bit of everything. In 1962, he scored a minor country hit with “Kentucky Means Paradise,” a dobro-driven twanger that he cut with the Green River Boys, a bluegrass group. In 1965, he scored a minor pop hit with “Universal Soldier,” a folk-rock protest song written by Buffy St. Marie. In between, he was a Beach Boy, filling in on tour after Brian Wilson suffered a breakdown and left the road. He was in the house band for the germinal pop TV series “Shindig!” All the while, he was a member in good standing of what became known as the Wrecking Crew, a loose lineup of first-call L.A. session musicians who were the backing band on the 1964 rock-and-soul movie “The T.A.M.I. Show,” and who played, more famously, on hundreds of the decade’s most indelible hits. Campbell played acoustic or electric guitar on records so singular and widely beloved that to name each recording artist in question would be redundant: “He’s a Rebel,” “Strangers in the Night,” “Good Vibrations,” “Everybody Loves Somebody Sometimes,” “Viva Las Vegas,” “You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feelin’,” “California Dreamin’.”
Campbell’s gift for doing it all and doing it well, so valuable as a session musician, at first proved a stumbling block to clarifying a distinctive sound and image of his own. But his versatility was a problem only until it became his solution. The breakthrough came in 1967, with John Hartford’s “Gentle on My Mind.” Campbell’s version of the song was an arresting synthesis of everything he’d been doing all along: country, folk, and pop rock, plus songwriting that was unmistakably post-Dylan. It wasn’t a smash. But it possessed broad-based appeal—its brand of romantic (and womanizing) individualism and its hurtling acoustic arrangement struck a chord with rockers and middle-of-the-roaders alike—and it stuck around. When it was re-released the following year, it cracked the pop Top 40 and inspired covers by everyone from Elvis Presley and Dean Martin to Aretha Franklin. When Campbell’s CBS variety series débuted, in early 1969, “Gentle on My Mind” was its theme.
By that time, Campbell had released a pair of far more successful singles, “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” and “Wichita Lineman,” followed quickly by a third, “Galveston.” All three songs were written by Jimmy Webb and contained contributions from Campbell’s old Wrecking Crew pals, and all three made more or less simultaneous débuts on the national pop, country, and adult-contemporary charts. That last format was named “easy listening” at the time, but the musical and emotional worlds of these records are anything but—anxious, dissatisfied energy quivers about their every note. Check the nervous-tick lick (from the bassist Carol Kaye) that opens “Wichita Lineman.” Mark the bombing raid (from the drummer Hal Blaine) that concludes “Galveston.” Webb’s characters here are ordinary middle Americans—a husband leaving his wife, a blue-collar guy at work, a young soldier in Vietnam—and they all feel trapped. They are trying or hoping to get somewhere better (with fingers crossed that somewhere better even exists), and fear that they aren’t equipped for the journey.
These and so many other Campbell hits—“Dreams of the Everyday Housewife,” “Where’s the Playground Suzie,” “It’s Only Make Believe,” and “Rhinestone Cowboy,” among others—identify as rural and Southern, but with strong middle-American appeal, hopeful but deeply melancholy. “Sadly Beautiful,” as a Paul Westerberg song from “Meet Glen Campbell” suggested.
The essential thing on all of these recordings is Campbell’s voice. Straight through to his last recordings, Campbell sings with a strong, rangy tenor that manages somehow to be both ordinary and remarkable: even when we’ve listened to that voice for decades, there remains something a bit indistinct about it, but in a way that feels more universal than faceless. On the rare occasions when we know he’s singing about his own life, as on the grim silver lining of “I’m Not Gonna Miss You,” the effect reaches beyond himself toward an anxious American audience—particularly, in this case, toward those baby-boomer fans who have aging parents and who aren’t getting any younger themselves. “I’m Not Gonna Miss You” lets Campbell do once again what, at his best, he’s always done: worry intensely about what his audience is worried about.
Campbell doesn’t twist notes much on that performance. He never has, and throughout his career, when he’s gone for the big finale, he seems to be under-singing, a bit down even when he’s up. Like the bluegrass and country music he grew up loving, and like Roy Orbison and Brian Wilson (two of his vocal heroes), Campbell’s great strength as a singer is his tone. High and lonesome.
We won’t hear his voice again. Tim McGraw has been tapped to sing “I’m Not Gonna Miss You” at the Oscars. But Campbell’s uptown-down-home persona—a broad-smiling, handsome man specializing in decidedly unsmiling songs—established a pop-country type that persists. Campbell is grinning and game, and a little blue. He enjoys big cities but is not entirely at home there. He appreciates Dylan, but he absolutely loves Hank Williams—and he’s content with his choice, most of the time. Before Burt Reynolds became a major film star, before Waylon and Willie crossed over, before “The Dukes of Hazzard,” Garth Brooks, and Blake Shelton, there was the sad and beautiful Glen Campbell, the first good ol’ boy of American pop.