Glen Campbell’s Goodtime grace
It never gets any better than when you are 10 to 12 years old. That’s when you first become engaged in the world beyond your immediate family. Chances are you acquired your favorite music, favorite movies, and favorite sports stars in those golden pre-high school days.
I was 10 years old when the Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour went on the air in January 1969. I was 13 years old when it went off the air in June 1972. So maybe it is not surprising that Campbell had a real and lasting influence on me. It was while watching his show I first realized I wanted to play guitar.
Campbell was not the first musician I’d seen on TV; there was Porter Wagoner and the Wilburn Brothers, the Beatles and Elvis Presley. When Johnny Cash’s show came on the air a few months after Campbell’s I faithfully watched it too. But maybe even more than I still want to admit, Glen Campbell was important to me.
I didn’t know he came from Billstown outside of Delight, the seventh of 12 children born to impoverished Arkansas sharecroppers. That he was a genuinely great guitar player, a studio ace who’d played on records by Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, who’d subbed for Brian Wilson in the Beach Boys. At 12 years old, all I knew was that Glen Campbell was cool.
By high school, he wasn’t cool. By then I liked other bands, other singers. Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones and the Who. Campbell was pop and schmaltzy; like the Monkees, a cynical product of the industrial-entertainment complex. He was pop counter-programming to counter-cultural rock ’n’ roll.
He didn’t write many of his own songs. He wasn’t rough-hewn like Dylan or Cash or Kris Kristofferson. His voice was pure and perfectly pitched; his auburn hair was longish but side-parted and immaculate. (When he met shaggy-haired songwriter Jimmy Webb a hit or two into their run, he allegedly growled at him to “get a haircut.”) Campbell didn’t brood like Brando; he had the affable charm of a talk show host. Wasn’t he once considered a possible successor to Johnny Carson?
Even his studio musician credibility argued against him. Studio musicians were hacks, right? They’d come in to play the music on the paper in front of them, take their smoke breaks and cash their checks. We used to regard them as soulless.
We were wrong, but in a way we weren’t.
There should be another word— “genius” has been denatured by overuse, and implies an immodesty that isn’t applicable in this instance. Campbell was no genius, at least not in the sense that most of us use the word; he was more entertainer than artist, he didn’t mean to change the world or your mind.
But “talent” is also an insufficient term, for talent is quite frankly cheap. As
Billy Bob Thornton once said, there are guys working in the Peavey factory who can play guitar every bit as well as Jimi Hendrix. There are probably a dozen guitar players within a wellstruck tee shot of my house who can play anything, who are limited only by their own imagination.
So let’s call it “grace” and allow that it alights where it will; it is no respecter of human ideas of class and place. It finds its way into hollers and shacks, into the hearts and heads of the unlikely as well as the favored sons and daughters of our upper middle class. Unlike talent, which is practically worthless without applied discipline and desire, this rarer magic is enough to chart a freakish destiny.
While Campbell’s brilliance as an instrumentalist was occluded by the pop stardom he obtained in the late 1960s, it’s what I remember best now. That and his wonderfully odd, remarkably grown-up collaborations with Jimmy Webb. There’s a darkness, a very adult fatalism running through “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” “Wichita Lineman” and especially “Galveston,” which, when it comes at me at a specific angle, chokes me up. You can talk about your confessional lyrics, but pop music doesn’t get any more raw and honest than when Campbell’s velvet-fisted tenor punches the line “I am so afraid of dying …”
Maybe you had to be there, maybe you had to be a little kid at the tag end of the 1960s with a dad in the service overseas. Maybe it sounds like exploitation to you. Maybe it sounds middle of the road.
We should never believe things other than music came easy for Glen Campbell, because he was in all other respects an ordinary man, with all the complications that implies. A friend of mine was once paid $500 by a supermarket tabloid for reporting the details of a screaming fight Campbell had with his then-lover Tanya Tucker in a Bossier City motel. He was twice her age and his career was beginning to slide, while she was at an awkward stage between the monster songs she’d recorded as a young teenager and the pop country chart success she’d settle into in the ’80s. They were rife for public humiliation, and they got it.
But Campbell lived long enough to redeem himself, to be accorded the prestige of an old master. I don’t want to remember him as a stoic trouper battling the disease that was slowly erasing him. I want him picking and grinning in a buckskin-fringed jacket, making it look easy, like probably it was for him.