Listen to this track by former Wrecking Crew stalwart, one-time stand-in Beach Boy, and unimpeachable Southern Pop hit-maker Glen Campbell. It’s “Wichita Lineman”, a huge hit from his 1968 record of the same name, Wichita Lineman, his twelfth. Written by Jimmy Webb specifically for Campbell, this song perfectly suits the singer’s talents as a vocalist with a sense of the cinematic in his delivery which adds to the epic scale of the material.
The song topped the pop charts all over the world in the fall of 1968, supported by a cadre of top flight sessioners including James Burton and Carole Kaye on guitars, Jim Gordon on drums, soaring strings arranged by producer Al DeLory, and Jimmy Webb himself playing the organ. Besides his emotionally connected vocal, Glen Campbell utilizes his years of experience as a sessioner himself by playing the desolate baritone guitar solo that seems to add streaks of shadow to the twilight-coloured landscape that sets the scene in this song.
Here it is: “Wichita Lineman” is one of the greatest pop songs ever recorded and for so many reasons. Even when it was released, the song seemed to defy categorization, and with a late-in-the-day melancholy that lends it undeniable gravitas. Webb’s skill at creating these kinds of effects at the songwriting level are important to note; the song never returns “home” to the tonic established at its beginning, which adds to its deep well of wistful sadness. Ultimately though, the credit for the emotional punch of this song must go to Glen Campbell himself, reinforcing a vital principle that is common to the arsenal of every skilled vocalist who seeks to tell a story; the ability to convey a vivid portrayal of a character that listeners can relate to immediately.
As with many of Jimmy Webb’s songs, the context of this song is off of the beaten path, seeming to be a song about work featuring a man working up on a telephone pole in the middle of a lonely stretch of road. The song was inspired initially by Webb’s glimpse of such a person, silhouetted against the sky during a car trip that Webb had taken in Oklahoma. The vision of the man struck the songwriter as a particularly lonely image; the single figure up on the telephone pole testing the line with a receiver to his ear, with only the sound of the whine to greet him. Who is this man? What is he hoping to hear as he leans into the receiver? These are the central questions that this song asks. That’s what Glen Campbell is able to bring to life.
In Campbell’s hands, the lineman isn’t just a part of the landscape, subsumed by the rolling Kansas plains. His performance reveals the hidden depths of the character’s humanity, a person who is overlooked, but is full of passion and need that goes beyond his unremarkable surface. His search in the sun for another overload has a far wider scope, fueled by a rich inner life that cannot be easily seen in a person so dedicated to a life of isolation. Inside of just two verses, we understand who this man is because of Campbell’s impressive command of emotional subtext as a vocalist, giving life and shape to someone who’s job it is to maintain connections for others, while remaining unable to make connections himself.
There’s just something about this song and Campbell’s performance of it that suggests that this man’s passionate inner life will never be revealed or outwardly expressed. It’s easy to get the feeling that the sentiment “I need you more than want you/and I want you for all time” is something the man feels, but that he’s otherwise unable to say to the one who needs to hear it. The Wichita lineman will always be on the line, alone with the cold Morse Code-like signals in his receiver. In this, the song is a tale of quiet tragedy. That’s a big part of its appeal as a story that seems to contain a whole movie within its three-minute-and-change running time, full of cinematic scope as it is. For an audience, this song feels like something we’ve witnessed as much as something we’ve heard. It is an amazing achievement by anyone’s standards.
Glen Campbell would enjoy great successes by the end of the 1960s and well into the next decade. He put his instincts to bringing characters to life to good use, appearing next to John Wayne in 1969’s Oscar-winning True Grit. He hosted his own television show, The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour, featuring the top flight talent of the time in part thanks to Campbell’s many connections after a career as a go-to session player on literally hundreds of songs. His hits as a solo recording artist would keep coming too, with “Rhinestone Cowboy” and “Southern Nights” being two huge AM radio hits in the seventies. He would continue to record in the eighties and nineties as well, and into the twenty-first century.
By 2011, Campbell would face a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s Disease which would present enormous challenges to his career as a performer and in his life in general. He would persevere however with the help of his family, some of whom would join him as musicians on his final tour. “Wichita Lineman” would feature heavily in his set, perhaps taking on additional meaning for man with a rich inner life dogged by a debilitating illness that threatened to isolate him from his memories and his loved ones. Yet unlike the lineman, he was not alone in the end.
Glen Campbell died last month at the age of 81, surrounded by family and with a rich history of music-making behind him.
For more on Campbell, I highly recommend the documentary I’ll Be Me, which documents his last tour and his inspiring fight to manage his illness while still determined to connect with multi-generational audiences in live performances.
Otherwise, check out the Glen Campbell official website to pay respects, and for information about his last album Adios, among other tidbits.