The mention of Glen Campbell is likely to evoke either a shrug or a snicker. For those under 20, he doesn’t exist, and to 40-year-olds, he endures largely as a caricature: clad in a white leisure suit, waving his good-guy white hat from atop a horse on the Rhinestone Cowboy album cover. Like most views of Glen Campbell, this image is largely a misperception.
Campbell’s career offers up a much more ambitious and influential body of work than the odd mega-hit would suggest. This four-disc, 80-song box set, The Legacy (1961-2002), makes an argument for Campbell’s significance and place within a musical tradition — a place difficult to define, straddling, as it does, two musical worlds. Unlike those of his country music contemporaries such as Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson, Campbell’s recordings are not the singular vision of an auteur, but the result of musical collaboration in pursuit of a more catholic but just as iconoclastic vision, rooted equally in country and pop music.
From his arrival in Hollywood in 1960 as a guitar-slinger wannabe until his explosion onto the charts in 1968, Glen Campbell is the Zelig of post-rock-’n'-roll pop music; he’s never the focus, but he’s consistently in the picture at significant moments. Before he ever recorded a single, Campbell had already sung backup vocals on Ricky Nelson’s “Travelin’ Man” and “Hello Mary Lou”. Within a year, he was playing guitar for the Champs (of “Tequila” fame) along with the future Seals & Crofts.
He showed up on landmark Phil Spector productions, such as the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” and the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling”. Eventually, he found a place among L.A.’s most celebrated group of session musicians, the Wrecking Crew, playing guitar on hundreds of classic pop recordings, including Frank Sinatra’s “Strangers In The Night”, Elvis Presley’s “Viva Las Vegas”, the Monkees’ “Last Train To Clarksville, and the Beach Boys’ legendary Pet Sounds album. At the same time, Campbell was lending guitar to Merle Haggard’s classic hits “The Fugitive”, “Swingin’ Doors”, “Mama Tried”, “Sing Me Back Home”, and many others.
It should come as no surprise, then, that when Campbell began recording, his choices reflected an interest in country and pop music. Campbell’s vision was eventually realized through his chance collaboration with Capitol producer/arranger Al De Lory (another Spector protégé) and up-and-coming pop songwriter Jimmy Webb. Together, the three crafted the countrypolitan soundscapes that would become Campbell’s signature and land him at the top of both the country and pop charts.
Their most successful collaborations — “By The Time I Get To Phoenix”, “Wichita Lineman” and “Galveston” — present the equivalent of dramatic monologues. Campbell’s trembling tenor achingly delivers Webb’s meditations of men alone: a man counting the hours and cities as he leaves his lover, a rural telephone pole jockey longing for the woman who waits at home, a soldier in a foxhole imagining the girl and life he’s left behind. De Lory’s arrangements complement these sentiments with sounds as sensitive and powerful as the voice and words they envelop. Listen for the high, syncopated strings telegraphing the tension between verses of “Wichita Lineman”, or the percussion explosions and low string tremolo that set the scene for “Galveston”.
But three or four mega-hits do not a career make. By filling in the gaps between hits, The Legacy also establishes Campbell’s place as a song interpreter in the tradition of his idols Sinatra and Elvis. Supported by De Lory’s arrangements and the Wrecking Crew’s tight grooves, Campbell’s recordings highlight his most underrated asset, an elastic and surprisingly soulful voice — able to wring pathos out of the lower registers and to soar to near-operatic heights of joy and pain. The Legacy also points to Campbell’s consistent efforts to broaden the sounds and voices of country music, an effort reflected in his inclusion of songs by Merle Haggard and Brian Wilson, Ernest Tubb and Tim Hardin, Hank Williams and Paul Simon. Campbell wasn’t just making crossover singles; he was making crossover albums, intentionally intertwining pop and country in an attempt to dig out a place where he could explore his musical roots.
Which doesn’t mean every attempt was successful. A duet featuring Campbell and Anne Murray trading lines from Burt Bacharach’s “I Say A Little Prayer” and Webb’s “By The Time I Get To Phoenix” is much more interesting on paper than on tape. And as pop styles slowly gravitate toward disco rhythms, ’80s drum samples and chorused guitars, the merging of influences takes its toll. Yet even in 1979, Campbell’s recording of Webb’s “Highwayman” — featuring Webb’s orchestral arrangement — recaptures the thrill and grandeur of those early hits.
A fourth disc of live performances, intended to display Campbell’s formidable vocal and guitar chops, lapses too often into cliched “spotlight” moments (“The Impossible Dream”, “My Way” — also staples of Sinatra and Elvis — or a guitar version of Rossini’s “William Tell Overture”) instead of emphasizing Campbell’s true legacy to country and pop history: the collaboration of song, arrangement, and voice in service of a broad and inclusive vision of country music, a vision that lives on in the pop-inflected recordings of Lee Ann Womack, Trisha Yearwood, Garth Brooks, the Mavericks, and Patty Loveless, to name but a few.