Pop Goes The Country Vol. 41: Glen Campbell – “Southern Nights” (1977)

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

As mentioned before on this feature, songwriter Jimmy Webb was responsible for some of Glen Campbell’s biggest hits. Ironically, while he didn’t write today’s hit in question, “Southern Nights,” he inadvertently helped Campbell attain another huge crossover hit with it.

During the mid-1970s, Campbell consistently had several hits, including “Country Boy (You’ve Got Your Feet in L. A.)” and a medley of “Don’t Pull Your Love”/”Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye,” all of which benefited from the success of Campbell’s previous hit, “Rhinestone Cowboy.” While at Webb’s house one day, Campbell found the inspiration for his fifth (and final) No. 1 hit.

According to Webb, Campbell visited him while he was listening to Allen Toussaint’s “Southern Nights,” an R&B song that never charted. The visit was cut short when Campbell asked Webb if he could have the record … no, not permission to record it – he wanted Webb’s actual record featuring the song. When Webb gave it to him, Campbell, according to Webb, literally ran out of the house.

Campbell sent a copy of the demo over to producer Gary Klein, who wasn’t quite as big on the song as either him or Webb were. Klein thought Toussaint’s version had a great melody and a “happy-go-lucky” sound, but had no idea what he was singing about.

The lyrics of “Southern Nights” were inspired by Toussaint’s childhood memories visiting relatives in the Louisiana backwoods, which often featured storytelling under star-filled nighttime skies. Like with Campbell’s previous entry on this feature, “Rhinestone Cowboy,” when he heard the song, he immediately identified with the lyrics reminding him of his own youth growing up on an Arkansas farm. Whereas “Rhinestone Cowboy” helped Campbell identify with who he was in the present day, “Southern Nights” helped him remember who he was before, in other words. With slightly altered lyrics, Campbell recorded “Southern Nights” at Capitol’s Los Angeles studio on Oct. 2, 1976.

That dancing ten-second guitar lick that kicks off the record is Campbell’s original contribution to the composition, which Campbell picked up from his friend, Jerry Reed. As is the spirit of this feature, lately, when observing “Southern Nights” in the context of where it stands in country music history, one has to consider the context. In essence, it’s a pop-flavored country song that benefitted not only from the success of crossover artists in the genre during this time (like, say, John Denver), but also from country music’s return to songs about “down-home” values. In other words, “Southern Nights” was a fairly good representation of the ’70s.

Like “Rhinestone Cowboy,” “Southern Nights” topped out at No. 1 on both the Billboard country singles chart and the Billboard Hot 100 pop chart in 1977. Sadly, after this Campbell’s chart success would grow more inconsistent with each passing year, but like with his friend Webb, he’d inadvertently inspire Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson to record one of his own songs a few years later (meaning he recorded it, but hadn’t written it), “Highwayman,” after playing it for them, a song that would rejuvenate all of their careers. Join me next time on ‘Pop Goes The Country,’ where we’ll discuss Crystal Gayle and how that edition of this feature just might make her brown eyes blue.

This piece was written thanks to the following sources:

  • An interview with Jimmy Webb in CMT provides the bulk of the backstory for this piece. Noel Murray also offers an excellent analysis of the song here.
  • Other information taken from Campbell’s biography in The Encyclopedia of Country & Western Music by Rick Marschall

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