When it comes to Glen Campbell, who died Tuesday at 81, we might all agree that Dylan Thomas’s famous phrase “Do not go gentle into that good night” should not apply. Campbell is, after all, the man who sang “Gentle on My Mind” and whose entire musical existence was about a sweet, embracing geniality that’s been too long absent in country music. What other way would we want him to go?
The host of CBS’s Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour from 1969-72 was not strictly about the good times, as fans know, as the Arkansas star battled rather publicly with some personal demons in the 1970s. But it wasn’t as if the friendly folksiness of his persona on TV and in concert was just a façade. The entertainer, whose very presence was a kind of comfort food for generations of Americans, just took a while to become as comfortable with himself as we all were with him.
His picking-and-grinning side made him an ideal television personality during the variety-show era, but it was his lonesome side that made him one of the great singles artists of the late 1960s. You could stack his trilogy of classic Jimmy Webb-penned smashes — “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” in 1967, “Wichita Lineman” in 1968, and “Galveston” in 1969 — against any triumvirate of material in pop or country. For three minutes at a time, we could believe that happy-go-lucky guy we saw cutting up with the Smothers Brothers on TV was really as sad as we were. Neil Diamond could only aspire to being as convincingly a solitary man as that lineman for the county.
He was only a great actor when he was singing, though. There’s a reason he didn’t have much of a movie career after a breakout part in 1969’s True Grit: Dramatic angst was the last thing anyone wanted to associate with someone who brought so much joy into living rooms. His real gifts had more to do with true grins.
Is he underrated? That may seem like a hard claim to make, but the answer is yes, when it comes to one skill set. As singer-songwriter Jason Isbell tweeted minutes after the news came out Tuesday: “Sure played one hell of a guitar.” It may seem odd to the nonmusicians among us for that to be a first go-to upon hearing of Campbell’s passing, since he was way too humble to ever purposely play the guitar hero, much less shred. But the guitar intelligentsia would revere him even if he’d had a lifelong case of laryngitis. As a member of the session-man collective known as the Wrecking Crew, Campbell played on records by everyone from Elvis to Sinatra to the Monkees, not to mention the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds. After he took off on his own, you had to see him live to really know what he was capable of — a tradition that carries on today in country with fellow humble virtuosos Brad Paisley and Keith Urban.
If his greatest work appeared in the late ’60s, his arguably biggest songs were still yet to come: “Rhinestone Cowboy” and “Southern Nights,” both singles that topped the pop as well as country charts in 1975 and ’77, respectively. The latter song recently recurred in the Guardians of the Galaxy sequel; in space, someone can hear you scream out requests for the most unfairly forgotten smashes of the ’70s.
After that came the tabloid years, best recounted in Tanya Tucker biographies, but still plenty of country hits to come with the notoriety, if no longer crossover ones — most notably “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle,” a duet with up-and-comer Steve Wariner, and “Still Within the Sound of My Voice,” a reunion with his partner in poetry, Jimmy Webb, both top 10 country radio tunes in 1987.
The personal renaissance began in 1981 when Campbell met his wife-to-be, Kim, who by most accounts helped him actually grow into the happy persona he’d always so convincingly portrayed. The musical renaissance would wait a lot longer. Not to disparage the county fair years, but the faithful got what they’d been waiting for in 2008 when he released Meet Glen Campbell, an audaciously titled comeback album that was not at all hobbled by its transparent aim of giving him the kind of hepster-cred boost afforded a few years earlier to Loretta Lynn and Johnny Cash. It sounded like a bad idea, in theory, having Campbell cut songs by the likes of Lou Reed, U2, Paul Westerberg, and even Green Day on this and the subsequent Ghost on the Canvas album. But under the wise guidance of producer Julian Raymond, these songs by modern rockers all sounded like something a lonely Wichita lineman really would listen to as he sat astride a pole in the Great Plains.
Campbell made a heroic decision to continue recording and performing live even in the early stages of the Alzheimer’s that was revealed in 2011. “Put him behind a microphone and you get magic,” Kim told Yahoo earlier this year. “Music is really good for people who have Alzheimer’s, because it utilizes all the different regions of the brain at the same time, and it’s very stimulating. The doctors all said that because Glen continued doing music, they think it helped him plateau longer and kind of fend off the disease a little bit.” His gain was our gain, until the forestalling effects of having him out playing music were finally outweighed by inevitably diminishing returns, and they had to pull him off the road. In the meantime, he’d regained his stature, playing Carnegie Hall and the Hollywood Bowl. If he couldn’t remember that he’d spent too many years relegated to the casino circuit, well, neither could we.
His final recording, “I’m Not Gonna Miss You,” for the documentary about his struggle with the disease, was Oscar-nominated for Best Song. By that time, he was unaware of what was going on. Another album, Adios, recorded when he was on the cusp of no longer being able to go into the studio in 2012, was released to acclaim this year. It, along with the two Raymond albums, put a suitable bookend on his career, continuing the blend of understated sentiment and class whose absence in the country music of today would put a tear in your eye, even if you weren’t thinking about Campbell’s own decline.
There are the picking-and-grinning songs to go back to, and someday soon, we may even be ready to put on a DVD of The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour for a pick-me-up. But you’ll forgive us if, just for now, we favor the forlorn stuff. For the fans who connected with those lonely classics as well as his cheerier emcee side, Glen Campbell will always be still on the line.