Pop Goes The Country Vol. 38: Glen Campbell – “Rhinestone Cowboy” (1975)

Glen Campbell

Pop Goes The Country is an ongoing series where I discuss country music’s biggest crossover hits.

This isn’t the first time we’ve discussed Glen Campbell in this feature, and it won’t be the last; though in this edition, we’ll discuss his signature song that has more to do with its writer than him. You see, while Campbell would call “Rhinestone Cowboy” his “philosophy song” in later years, which would also go on to become his biggest-selling hit, the song was written by Larry Weiss, a Los Angeles songwriter who moved out from New York in 1971.

Weiss, a former Broadway performer, hoped to write a song that would combine the hopes and fears of stardom in the image of a “rhinestone cowboy,” after overhearing someone use the phrase in conversation. In other words, the song was a happy accident, a recurring theme of this feature. So, by fantasizing about all of his cowboy heroes from his childhood, Weiss wrote what he’d hope would be his breakthrough hit. Remember, the big theme of crossover hits for country music in the ‘70s was that, for the most part, the hits reflected a combination of the artist’s childhood influences.

As you can already guess, though, that success didn’t happen, at least not for Weiss, himself. Released on 20th Century Records, “Rhinestone Cowboy” floundered on the charts. Fortunately, one of the small plays it did receive managed to reach Campbell, as he listened on KNX Radio in Los Angeles. Campbell could relate to the lyric about a country singer who’d seen it all, spending several years playing honky tonks in Albuquerque in the ‘50s and working as a demo singer, a staff writer and a session musician before hitting it big in the late ’60s, after he turned 30. Between shows on his 1974 Australian tour, Campbell would take the demo of the song he’d acquired and drive through the outback scenery between Sydney and Brisbane, learning the song on his car’s tape player.

One popular rumor is that Weiss originally offered David Allan Coe the chance to record the song, given that he had a reputation as “The Mysterious Rhinestone Cowboy,” though this is hard to confirm. Either way, when Campbell returned to the United States, Capitol Records label song promoter Al Coury told Campbell he had a song he should hear that he thought would be a monster hit – that song, as if you couldn’t already guess, was “Rhinestone Cowboy.” Campbell simply laughed and told Coury he knew about the song and already planned to record it. The song wasn’t a guaranteed success for Campbell, though; his popular TV show had been canceled, acting gigs dried up, and he hadn’t had a hit since 1971. Ironically, though, that only added more authenticity to the story of a faded star hoping to make it big, especially when it went on to become Campbell’s biggest hit of his career. Join me next time on ‘Pop Goes The Country,’ where we’ll discuss John Denver and why he thanks God for making him a country boy.

This piece was written thanks to the following sources:

– Take this for what it’s worth, but certain fun facts stem from SongFacts.
– There wasn’t much other information floating around about this song, but Mark Tassler of KXRB has a nice write-up about the song here.
– Other facts about Glen Campbell are taken from The Encyclopedia of Country & Western Music by Rick Marschall.

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