R.I.P. Glen Campbell: He wasn't just a 'Rhinestone Cowboy'

Glen Campbell died yesterday at age 81.

Glen Campbell died yesterday at age 81. Kristin Burns

Glen Campbell began his long public goodbye in 2011 when he announced he suffered from Alzheimer's disease.

Between that June day and his death on August 8, 2017, Campbell managed to release four albums, including Adios this year. Six years is a long time—time enough for the world at large to come to terms with a legacy that's not so easily reduced to his deservedly celebrated '60s blockbusters "Gentle On My Mind," "By the Time I Get to Phoenix" "and "Wichita Lineman," nor their '70s sequels "Rhinestone Cowboy" and "Southern Nights."

To start, Campbell wasn't strictly a country singer, despite debuting with a hard bluegrass record called Big Bluegrass Special in 1962. Not long after that he slid into the studios of Hollywood, where he played guitar on records that defined their era—and not just rock and roll 45s like the Crystals' "He's A Rebel," Elvis Presley's "Viva Las Vegas," and the Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations," either. Campbell popped up on easy listening tunes by Frank Sinatra ("September Of My Years") and Dean Martin ("Everybody Loves Somebody Sometime"). And that confluence of country, rock, and schmaltz would surface on Campbell's career-making late '60s singles, sides that had much the same ability to bend a mind as the psychedelic rock that helped define that era.

Though now acknowledged as a pop classic, "Gentle on My Mind," Campbell's 1967 interpretation of John Hartford's rambling folk tale, didn't even break into the Billboard Top 40, nor did it get far on their country chart. What brought Glen Campbell fame was "By The Time I Get To Phoenix," the first of many Jimmy Webb songs he'd record. It was the pairing of a lifetime. Webb's baroque rhymes and complicated melodies could sometimes bog down a singer (Richard Harris couldn't help but turn "MacArthur Park" into turgid camp in 1968) but Glen's light touch sold Jimmy's eccentricities while retaining their otherworldly essence. His big hits from this era, especially "Wichita Lineman," remain elusive, sounding suspended in space and time, even as their ornate arrangements and sumptuous strings suggest the heady days of Hollywood at the close of the '60s.

Campbell couldn't resist the allure of Hollywood. He took a co-starring role against John Wayne in 1969's True Grit and received his own star vehicle Norwood a year later, a film that appeared while he was concurrently hosting The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour for CBS television. The variety show lasted until 1972 but its existence tarnished Campbell for much longer, suggested he was merely a song and dance man.

Truth be told, Campbell's work sagged during the early '70s. His few good singles were mainly covers, including a version of "Dream Baby (How Long Must I Dream)" that underscored the debt his operatic pop owed to Roy Orbison. After the show went off the air, he rallied, beginning with the gorgeous "Houston (I'm Comin' To See You)" which was trumped on the charts by an improbable update of Pee Wee King's old- timey "Bonaparte's Retreat" that was modernized by a bagpipe solo. Still, his masterwork was "Rhinestone Cowboy," a recording so joyous you can almost overlook how conflicted a tale it tells, a lament for the many compromises it takes to achieve stardom. It's an ideal hit for a veteran artist: It feels autobiographical even if it was a song Campbell picked up from the airwaves, a song that gains resonance through how it's sung.

Interpretation was one of Campbell's key gifts. Maybe that's tied into how he could pick the hell out of any tune, finding the key phrases and melodies to spin off into solos, but he also zeroed into the core of songs that sometimes seemed evasive. This is especially true of the songs of Jimmy Webb, a brilliant writer who often connects with the head but Campbell always found his heart. The two remained friends throughout their lives—Webb's Facebook tribute is quite lovely—but part of the brilliance of Glen is that he made all these dense words and emotions not only easy but universal.

This skill is also why his 21st century comeback could be moving even when the existence of new albums could, if viewed from a certain angle, seem exploitive. Campbell possessed a pure, quivering voice—a natural talent he sculpted through years as a professional musician, a testament to the power of craft. When he was at his commercial peak, these skills were hardly in vogue—in a 2015 appreciation for the New Yorker, David Cantwell underscored how critics slighted Campbell in his prime because his hits were clearly studio creations and not "authentic."

But Glen Campbell's facility with arrangements and performance are the very reasons why his music endures. With their lysergic strings and echoing guitars, their soft textures and clean melodies, his recordings suggest another place—not just a time passed but a sonic ideal that exists only in the corners of our mind. And that's why his best work, for all its period trappings, will continue to entrance long after his passing: Campbell's music evokes not a time but a feeling, one that's conjured anew whenever one of his classic records is played.

To hear more Glen Campbell, check out Stephen Thomas Erlewine's specially selected Spotfy playlist.