Glen Camp­bell’s Good­time grace

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - VOICES - PHILIP MAR­TIN pmartin@arkansason­ www.blood­dirtan­

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.

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