Glen Campbell was my first obsession. Through this obsession I learned how to listen to, study, collect, and think about music.
Campbell's "Goodtime Hour" was fascinating to a 7-year-old boy living in a farming village in Western New York State. He performed not from in front or above the audience, but from within it. His voice was clear and bright, and notes poured out of his beautiful guitar. Sitting in that crowd, he proved that if you have a guitar, you can put on a show anywhere, anytime. You didn't even need a stage to be a star.
A young boy learns about music
My parents saw my interest and encouraged it, buying several of Campbell's albums. My first six-string guitar came that Christmas, a plastic Sears model. I was a few years away from seriously learning the instrument, but I wasn't too young to try to comb my hair like him, or to pick out corduroy clothes like he wore on his album covers.
The first Campbell album we got was Hey, Little One. Like most of the albums he released during that era, it was a hodge-podge of standards, country, and pop music, heavily orchestrated by Al DeLorey. Gentle On My Mind was the second album we got, and its production was the closest of his records to his show's spare folk sound.
At that age, I was reading and memorizing every bit of print I saw. I learned about songwriters, and memorized the credits on Campbell’s albums. Over the years, the names would become like friends to me: L. Russell, O. Redding, R. Orbison, P. & D. Everly, D. Leitch, and B. R. & M. Gibb. My favorite song from the first album was written by B. Dylan, long before I knew how to pronounce his name. My mother explained the meaning of some songs. On the front cover of Gentle On My Mind Campbell struck the same pose that Dylan did on his first album. The back cover liner notes made the case that Campbell was a "song-poet."
Campbell had a knack for choosing songs he could deliver with drama and sincerity. He subtly but effectively edited songs such as Nilsson's "Without Her" and Tim Hardin's "Reason to Believe." He simplified and greatly improved Roger Miller's Christmas song "Old Toy Trains." The desperate, yelping twist to the word "vacation" in "Wichita Lineman" surely came from Campbell, not from his longtime collaborator, Jim Webb. Try to imagine the song without that twist now.
An expanding musical world
Like any young boy, my attention eventually moved to what else was on the radio. First I was attracted to other folk-guitar based artists like Jim Croce, whose sideman Maury Meuhlieson expanded the melodic, ornate finger-picking which Campbell's records only hinted at. When the Beatles entered my life, I finally learned how to play a real guitar. I constantly scanned the radio dial for new songs.
By the time "Rhinestone Cowboy" hit, I was too distracted by all sorts of musical input to notice what a finely-crafted statement of purpose it was. I preferred "Southern Nights." Campbell was up to his old tricks, taking Allen Toussaint’s foggy, delicate original and adding a sparkling guitar riff, a bouncing beat, and an sense of exuberance. Once again, he had changed a song and stolen it from the composer.
Campbell continued to make imaginative choices in material. In 1989, he had a hot-pickin’ country hit with Lefty Frizzell’s “She’s Gone, Gone, Gone.” His 2008 album Meet Glen Campbell showed the singer a range of song-styles. His final years were a brave demonstration of honesty and vulnerability.
The influence lives on
Glen Campbell’s influence on the way I listen to music has never gone away. I still like talented, crowd-pleasing performers who make intimate, honest recordings. The quickest way to my heart is to have an expressive singer wraps their voice around a dramatic melody and thoughtful lyrics. My love for songs such as Vampire Weekend’s “Obvious Bicycle” and Nicole Atkins’ “Red Ropes” started all those years ago, when Glen Campbell was singing for us on TV.
Thank you, Glen Campbell.