My first lasting memory of Glen Campbell was on television. There, on Sunday evenings during the turbulent summer of 1968 where ‘The Smother Brothers Comedy Hour” usually aired, was a seasonal replacement variety series called “The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour.” It was safer than the Smothers show, to be sure, and made very sure it capitalized on the country geniality Campbell wore proudly and naturally throughout his career.
Being 10 years old, I knew nothing of the accomplishments Campbell had already chalked up: his reputation as a master guitar picker, his agility as a song interpreter and especially the unexpected roles he had already been called upon to play (like replacing a ravaged Brian Wilson on tour with the Beach Boys). What I viewed on TV was an entertainer, pure and simple.
That’s likely what most of America saw, too: an artist merging country and pop in a way no one before or, in my estimation, after, ever did. Sure, Johnny Cash took to the airwaves with a more seriously music-driven and artistically-savvy TV show a year later. But Campbell was a country artist the country could bank on at a time when social and political turmoil was even more inescapable than it is now.
After a few years passed and a sense of personal appreciation for popular music heightened, Campbell’s gifts began to reveal themselves. That meant, of course, dissecting three of his most familiar hits: “Wichita Lineman,” “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” and “Galveston.” All three were masterfully crafted, from Jimmy Webb’s compositional detail to the exquisitely orchestrated arrangements that made the songs sound cinematic to the unforced emotive vocal drama Campbell brought to the music.
For my money, Campbell only came close to rekindling the elegance of those songs once. That was with his almost conversational 1977 version of Allen Toussaint’s sublime “Southern Nights.” Toussaint made the sound like a meditation. Campbell streamlined it in a way any keen-minded country artist would. I still favor Toussaint’s treatment. But Campbell’s version was inescapably accessible, plus it but a put a few well-earned royalty checks in Toussaint’s mailbox. There’s another gold star in Campbell’s favor.
I parted ways with his music after that, which was when Campbell’s celebrity status became tabloid fodder. And while I can appreciate the public fight he put up against the cruelties of Alzheimer’s in his final years, I questioned the choice of family and promoters in having him perform in such an unavoidably diminished and compromised condition.
I glanced back last night at a review I wrote of Campbell’s November 2012 concert at the Lexington Opera House, when his illness was noticeably advancing. This was the opening paragraph: “A patron beside me Tuesday night as we were leaving the Opera House summed up the Glen Campbell performance that had just ended with a remark that was more like a sigh of relief than an exaltation of praise – ‘Well, that wasn’t as scary as I thought it would be.’”
That wasn’t the parting shot I suspect anyone wanted. Best instead to remember Campbell for the Good Time Hours, the era when the Wichita Lineman was still very much on the line.