Pop Goes The Country is an ongoing series where I explore country music’s biggest crossover hits.
Despite being born in a town called “Delight” in the state of Arkansas, Glen Campbell was born into hard times. The seventh son in a sharecropper’s family of twelve children, Campbell set himself with his proficiency on guitar, playing in his uncle’s western swing band by the time he was a teenager.
By 1960, Campbell made his way to Los Angeles to try and make his mark as a session musician. Beyond setting himself apart within his own family due to his passion for music, Campbell was immediately distinguishable from other musicians for his prowess on the guitar. With those skills, Campbell became a member of “The Wrecking Crew,” the West Coast’s answer to Nashville, Tennessee’s famous “A Team.”
But we’ve not yet reached the part where Campbell and Nashville intersected. No, “The Wrecking Crew” were responsible for playing on all of the biggest pop records coming out of Los Angeles of the time, including hits by Bobby Darin, the Monkees, Nat King Cole and Elvis Presley, just to name a few.
Still, Campbell was always destined for more than simply sticking to the shadows. As a solo artist, he made his debut with a No. 61 tally on Billboard’s Hot 100 with “Turn Around, Look At Me” on the record label, Crest. This helped him secure a deal with Capitol Records in 1962, with a cover of Al Dexter’s “Too Late To Worry, Too Blue To Cry” providing another pop entry for him. But when that success couldn’t be matched with followup singles, Capitol strongly considered dropping Campbell.
Campbell teamed up with producer Al DeLory in 1966 to see what they could salvage out of a dying career. As it turns out, the combination was a success. “Burning Bridges” became Campbell’s first top 20 on the country charts in 1967, with “Gentle On My Mind” being Campbell’s true breakout hit despite its mediocre chart position. The real magic came, however, when Campbell teamed up with songwriter Jimmy Webb.
A Baptist preacher’s son, Webb grew up traveling between churches in Oklahoma and Texas. The beauty of the coast impressed him, and he’d revisit the images of crashing sea waves and soaring sea birds when penning “Galveston,” but more on that later.
Campbell and Webb worked their magic together more times than one can count, and, sadly, we’ll only get to talk about two examples of that magic. Still, Campbell’s true breakthrough came when he recorded his first Webb composition, “By The Time I Get To Phoenix,” a song based on Webb’s real-life breakup with a girlfriend. After earning Grammy awards for “Gentle On My Mind” and “By The Time I Get To Phoenix,” superstardom was just around the corner for Campbell, and Webb too.
Of course, Webb didn’t “belong” solely to Campbell during this time. With Campbell’s records, though, along with Fifth Dimension’s “Up Up And Away” and Richard Harris’s “MacArthur Park,” there wasn’t a hotter songwriter in 1967 than Webb. Here’s the real kicker, though – Campbell and Webb didn’t actually meet until about six months into the chart run of “Phoenix.” They ran into each other one day at a session, where Campbell asked Webb if he had any more “town songs,” and when Webb said he didn’t, he immediately went home to compose a song just with Campbell in mind.
In turn, a song about a man who works on telephone poles in the middle of Kansas was born. He’s, of course, devoted to his job, committed to preventing system overloads. It’s really lonely work, and he misses his girlfriend. This definitely sounds like a hit with mass appeal, doesn’t it?
In all seriousness, Webb himself drew more on upon beauty than pure loneliness for the song. Per Webb himself, “I grew up in Oklahoma, and I was around that whole world of humming wires and the trucks and trains on their endless journey across the Plains states. I remember the sound of the wires and looking up and seeing these men working on them. I also remember seeing them from the perspective of the front seat of an automobile, cruising along in the Panhandle at 60 miles per hour and seeing a little dot on a pole and seeing him come closer and closer until you are on him and then he’s gone in an instant. Sometimes he would be talking on a little telephone. It’s a lonely, romantic, prairie gothic image. I definitely tapped into it and used it with ‘Wichita Lineman,’ which is also a love story about a guy who can’t get over a woman.’
Reportedly, the storyline of “Wichita Lineman” was based around the same ex-girlfriend who inspired “By The Time I Get To Phoenix.” From here, as the story famously goes, Webb wrote the first verse and part of a second verse of the song and sent a demo tape over to the studio to see if Campbell and DeLory liked it. He had plans to finish the song if they liked where it was going. But Webb never heard back from Campbell and assumed he didn’t like it. When he saw Campbell several weeks later, Webb asked him, “so whatever happened with that ‘Wichita Lineman’ thing? I guess you didn’t like it, huh?”
“Didn’t like it?” Campbell said. “We recorded it!”
“But it wasn’t finished,” Webb said, to which Campbell laughed and replied, “Well it is now.”
Still, the song was short, so Campbell and DeLory added a long guitar solo to mimic the melody of the verse to make the song long enough. DeLory then added a string arrangement for the introduction and fade-out, and, sure enough, that unfinished song became Campbell’s second-biggest career hit (next to the eventual “Rhinestone Cowboy,” but that’s a story for another time).
Given that the song was unfinished, Webb was appreciative of the song’s impact, but never quite understood its appeal to listeners, admittedly. One night as he received an award at the Songwriters Hall of Fame in New York, he was told Billy Joel would sing the song. Joel came out and started playing it, but deconstructed the song line by line.
“When the guy says, ‘I need you more than want you,’ that’s kind of a dis toward the girl, isn’t it?,” Joel said. As he sang the next line, “and I want you for all time,” he said, “Well, I guess he really is crazy about her.” He was a fellow songwriter trying to probe the song to understand it better, as all do.
Joel ultimately came close to deciphering the true meaning of the song when he said that “Wichita Lineman” is, “a simple song about an ordinary man thinking extraordinary thoughts.” Webb said, “That got to me; it actually brought tears to my eyes. I had never really told anybody how close to the truth that was.”
“Wichita Lineman,” however, was not the only time Webb drew upon the images in his mind for a song. As you might recall from earlier in this piece, “Galveston” was inspired by images in a younger Webb’s mind, yet the song channeled a much more mature theme – a protest of the Vietnam War. The song ultimately crosses Webb’s love of seaside Texas with that very notion, a popular sentiment of the folk revival going on during this time.
Webb wrote this song with a much clearer meaning than “Wichita Lineman.” Simply put, the song is about a young soldier separated from his first love. In one line that changed over time, the scared and lonely soldier sets his gun down when memories of his lover overwhelm him. Perhaps to strip the song of a strong political sentiment and give it a broader appeal, the song, with just that one line, adds a humanity to the track that shifts the focus toward the fears and struggles of the young servicemen taken from their hometowns. Per Webb, “[it’s] about a guy who’s caught up in something he doesn’t understand and would rather be somewhere else.”
Don Ho first recorded the song in 1968, the same year Campbell enjoyed success with “Wichita Lineman.” Once Campbell hosted his famous Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour show, Ho suggested that Campbell should record a country version of the song. Unlike Ho’s easy pop listening arrangement, Campbell switched the tempo and lyrical content.
Webb’s arrangement is much darker and more somber than Campbell’s known upbeat version of the famous hit. Webb speaks more to the pain of a young man as he pines for his lover. Campbell, on the other hand, frames the same soldier as a proud fighter protecting her freedom. Campbell’s soldier, therefore, is brave and packed with more optimistic bravado.
Even with his changes to the song’s general message, it remains a sad reminder of relationships put on hold when young men got drafted into the war. Despite the upbeat nature of the tune, many people still related to the lonelier nature of the track, as everyone needed a friend (or someone) to make it through this harrowing time, making it a sad and relatable country song, like all of the best ones. Join me next time on ‘Pop Goes The Country,’ where we’ll discuss Johnny Cash, or rather, “Sue Cash.” If you don’t know what I mean, you’ll know then.
This piece was written thanks to the following sources:
– Quote attributions for Jimmy Webb all come from Chicken Soup For The Soul: Country Music, with the story of “Wichita Lineman” written by Webb himself.
– Information on Campbell comes from both The Encyclopedia of Country Music by the Country Music Hall of Fame, with Campbell’s biography written by Bob Allen, and the The Encyclopedia of Country & Western Music by Rick Marschall.
– Further helpful information regarding Campbell’s background and his hits was taken from The Glen Campbell Story by Freda Kramer.
– The insight for “Galveston” is truly not mine, but rather lifted from this Wide Open Country article by Bobby Moore.