Glen Campbell says ‘Adios’: the story behind his farewell album

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  • Kim Campbell
    19th Prime Minister of Canada

On June 9 of this year, Glen Campbell released his 64th and final studio album, Adios. Almost exactly two months later, on Aug. 8, he passed away at age 81 following a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease. Yahoo Music is re-running this piece on the making of the country legend’s farewell album today as tribute.

Glen Campbell in concert
(Photo by Lisa Lake/Getty Images)

Glen Campbell’s new album — his true farewell record, despite an earlier recording that was billed as such — is Adios, a collection of songs he secretly recorded shortly after his final tour came to a close at the end of 2012. It opens with his version of a song it’s hard to believe he never recorded before: “Everybody’s Talkin’,” the Fred Neil tune made into a smash hit by Nilsson in the early 1970s. Surely, you think, it was chosen because, without having been written to, it seems to describe the condition of Alzheimer’s.

In fact, Adios seems to be a concept album of sorts, with most of the tracks making at least a passing reference to remembering, forgetting, being stuck inside one’s head, or just saying so long — all the way down to, obviously, the Jimmy Webb-penned title track. A line like “Maybe someday I believe we’ll forget”? Titles like “Am I All Alone (Or Is It Only Me)” or “Funny How Time Slips Away”? You’ve got to commend Campbell’s associates for how cleverly they managed to find existing songs whose metaphors would seem to allude to his very literal condition.

Except friends and family members all insist this “concept” was coincidental. His family just wanted a farewell record that skewed toward the singer’s classic style of gentle, lyrical country, leaning on tunes already familiar enough to the Alzheimer’s-stricken singer that they wouldn’t involve an impossible learning curve. If those tunes mostly happen to bring up issues of memory, that was a bittersweet kismet.

“I promise you, it wasn’t pre-planned,” says producer Carl Jackson, in the midst of agreeing that the songs on the album seem to be thematically grouped. “Even with the title of the album being Adios, we didn’t think about that at the time. That was just one of Glen’s favorite Jimmy Webb songs. It wasn’t like ‘We need to do ‘Adios’ because this is gonna be your last record, or ‘Oh, man, we need to do “Everybody’s Talkin’” because that has this underlying message. We were just cutting songs.”

The singer’s wife of 35 years, Kim Campbell, concurs. “The lyrics — ‘Everybody’s talkin’ at me, I can’t hear a word they’re saying, only the echoes of my mind’ — when I listen to that now and I think about our journey with Alzheimer’s, that’s kind of where we are today. So that song has an eerie edge to me now. Because Glen has complete aphasia. He doesn’t understand anything anyone says to him, and he can’t communicate verbally, although he’s content and in his own world. These were all just songs that Glen had always loved and had been singing ever since I’ve known him. You’re right, somehow they magically take on kind of a different edge, knowing that he has Alzheimer’s. Like ‘It Won’t Bring Her Back’ — there’s nothing I can do to bring Glen back to me now, so I just have to accept it. It’s really sad.”

Glen’s daughter, Ashley Campbell, who plays banjo and sings on the album, says that although any running theme is “kind of coincidental, because these are all songs that he’s loved and played for so many years, way before the Alzheimer’s, but it’s also very fitting. I think life is about that — about remembering, and about cherishing things, and sometimes having to say goodbye and move on. So it’s kind of poignant for every stage in life.”

Not that Adios is just a beautiful bummer. “Am I All Alone (Or Is It Only Me),” for one, is a moment of classic country levity, and includes an introductory snippet of its late writer, the great country humorist Roger Miller, playing the tune to Glen at his home, as captured by Kim on a microcassette recorder, before we get Campbell’s studio version with an added vocal part by Vince Gill. Other less melancholy tunes include the George Jones evergreen “She Thinks I Still Care,” which Campbell previously cut for 1972’s Glen Travis Campbell album. Virtually the entire album sounds like a time capsule lifted from the singer’s late ‘60s/early ‘70s golden age, when he formed an unbeatable team with Webb, who’s responsible for four of the songs on this goodbye collection.

Speaking of memories, fans will recall that 2011’s Ghost on the Canvas was billed as Campbell’s farewell effort in the time. There was no ruse involved: It just seemed like he might have one left in him when the singer came off the road from his goodbye tour at the end of 2012. There was no career strategizing involved in keeping the fact that he’d cut an additional album under wraps until now.

The way Kim tells it, it kind of, well, slipped their minds. “I had many other things to worry about,” she says, underscoring the obvious. “We really almost forgot about it, because I was in the throes of Glen’s progressing Alzheimer’s, and it was going from middle stages into the later stages, which can be kind of crazy and harrowing. It’s really a quite difficult journey to travel when you’re living with Alzheimer’s. In the early and middle stages, Glen was just great. He was able to function; he just needed the right support team around him. But to the later stages, you just kind of become lost. So I got busy with that. But when things settled down a bit, we thought, ‘Gosh, we should get these out and listen to them again,’ and when we did, we thought, ‘We’ve got to finish this project.’ I’m so glad that we did. I think Glen would be so happy with it.”

Campbell’s condition was advanced enough by the end of 2012 that it was hardly a sure thing studio sessions would have a happy ending. “We didn’t know what we would get,” she admits. “But put him behind a microphone and you get magic. You know, 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.”

For this album, “they needed to be songs that he was very familiar with, because the melodies were deeply ingrained in his heart and his soul, and he already understood the meaning of the lyrics. Every time you handed him a guitar, these are the songs he would play, but he had never recorded them.”

Ashley confirms: “Any time we were at home, if he would sit down with a guitar, you could almost guarantee that the first thing he would play were ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right’ (the rollicking Dylan kiss-off he covers on this album) or “A Thing Called Love.’ Those were just his go-tos, because they’re so much fun to play on guitar, in that Jerry Reed style. Because his short-term memory wasn’t so great, some of the songs we had to take line by line. But he had such a great time recording with Carl, because they’re friends that go way back.”

Ashley owes her very existence to the album’s producer. Carl Jackson was a member of Campbell’s band from 1972-84, and it was during that time that he and his-then girlfriend set up Glen on a blind date in New York with Kim, who was dancing at Radio City Music Hall at the time. “I’m so proud of the fact that I introduced them, because Kim saved Glen’s life—it’s that plain,” Jackson says. “I mean before all this — when Glen was going through some really tough times, back years ago, and things that could have very easily taken him out of this world, Kim was a complete blessing to him.” Jackson is Ashley’s godfather, which may or may not be incidental to the fact that she followed in his footsteps in becoming an ace banjo player. While Jackson played the banjo part when Glen performed “Everybody’s Talkin’” back on The Sonny and Cher Show, he insisted Ashley take over that rather complicated role when they recorded it for this album.

Jackson admits that they tried recording some additional material for the farewell that didn’t pan out. “I actually did cut a couple of new songs, but we were not able to pull those off, because there just wasn’t left enough in the memory bank as far as [learning] those melodies he didn’t know. But with these tunes — like ‘Funny How Time Slips Away,’ which he used to bring out and sing quite often when I was traveling the road with him — he was so familiar with ‘em that it was not nearly as much of a struggle as you might think. I never really would show him but about a verse at a time, as far as lyrics go, because that would confuse him to see more. But we were able to pull it off with so much love in the room. Those melodies were still there in his head, and he hadn’t lost that perfect pitch. I know how much joy was on his face when we were doing it, and there’s tons of video to prove that. In the studio, we had 99 percent laughter and 1 percent tears.”

These songs don’t represent Campbell’s final turn in the studio. That was for “I’m Not Gonna Miss You,” the Oscar-nominated song that was the theme for the documentary I’ll Be You.

“The lyric of “I Wish You Were Here” reflects how we all just miss Glen so much” says Kim. “We still have him, but like ‘I’m Not Gonna Miss You’ says, ‘I’m still here, but yet I’m gone.’ That is the reality of the situation. I started a website called to inspire and encourage caregivers to take care of themselves while they care for the ones they love, because it’s just so heartbreaking and depressing to lose a family member like this. It’s great to be able to bring something positive out of this experience. I’m so proud of my husband for going public with his diagnosis, and then going out to do a tour while he was living with Alzheimer’s with a film crew documenting it. He was so brave and open. There are 5.6 million people living with it in the United States alone, and 15 million caregivers, so I think he helped remove the stigma and opened up a conversation about it and gave people hope.”

How is he doing, fans have to wonder, six years after going public with his diagnosis?

“I will tell you that, just like his song ‘I’m Not Gonna Miss You’ says, he is blissfully unaware of his situation. But he is getting the best care in the world, and he is content and cheerful. He can’t play guitar anymore, but he still sings. It’s not lyrics that we understand. It’s kind of gibberish, but you can tell that he is enjoying himself. He’s got a happy melody in his heart and just as content as can be. He’s surrounded by love. So that’s the best we can ask or hope for.”

Says Jackson, “I go see Glen now, and believe it or not, he still sings. It’s like talking to him. I mean, you can’t understand what he’s singing. The word he’s singing may not make any sense. But there is still that voice. It’s pretty amazing. They’re really not even melodies you’d recognize, anymore, but they’re pretty. And he does say some words. We have conversations; it’s just not about anything. I tell people that it’s kind of like you take the dictionary and pour all the words in a hat and Glen just reaches in and pulls them out. I’ll carry on a conversation with him. It doesn’t have to mean anything. It’s just being with him and knowing what he’s always meant to me. He’ll say something and just laugh or smile or show all kinds of different emotions with what he’s saying, but you have no idea what it means. But I want to believe that he knows what it means.”

For Jackson, a friend of 50 years, it was important that Campbell sound up to the task on this last album, to fulfill a legacy. “I want people to realize and know what I believe, which is that Glen Campbell is the greatest singer ever,” he says. ”There are people that will have different opinions, but after being around him for all those years, to me, he was the golden boy of American music, just like Mickey Mantle was the golden boy of baseball. He was perfection when he sang. And you can test me on that. I tell people that I’ll give ‘em 500 bucks if they can go find a bad note on Glen Campbell. You know, show me a YouTube video where he’s not just killing it. I see the clips from this British TV show we did in front of a live audience for 10 or 12 weeks, all in front of a live audience, one take, live band, live orchestra, and it sounds like it’s been tuned. He was absolutely amazing as a vocalist, and I hope this album continues to show that.”

Although he wasn’t up to playing guitar on Adios, Kim hopes her husband’s legacy is remembered as “one of the greatest guitar players that ever lived. Most musicians are well aware of that, but some of the new kids growing up, maybe they’ve never heard of Glen Campbell. Of course, if they go to see Guardians of the Galaxy, they’re gonna hear ‘Southern Nights’! That was a thrill for us.”