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An Interview with Glen Campbell

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Glen Campbell is a pop music legend, having sold more than 45 million records. From 1967 to 1977, he had over 30 singles on the pop charts, four of which hit the Top Ten, with two, "Rhinestone Cowboy," and "Southern Nights," going all the way to #1. He's also a two-time Grammy Award winner for "Gentle On My Mind" and "By The Time I Get To Phoenix," and was inducted into the Country Music Hall Of Fame in 2005.

Even if he had never sung a note, his mark in pop music history would be secure as one of LA's top session guitarists in the 1960s, playing on such classic records as Frank Sinatra's Strangers In The Night, The Righteous Brothers' You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin', and that most perfect of albums, Pet Sounds by The Beach Boys.

This week, a DVD of some of the greatest performances from The Glen Campbell Good-Time Hour, a variety show which ran on CBS from 1969-1972. was released, and it features Campbell singing some of his biggest hits, as well as duets with Linda Ronstadt, Ray Charles, Johnny Cash, and Willie Nelson, among others. I recently had the opportunity to speak with Campbell about his career. Below are excerpts from that interview.

Let's start by talking about this DVD, which consists of an hour's worth of musical performances from The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour. How did you come to get the show?

I hosted the Smothers Brothers Summer Show, but Tommy [Smothers] was running my show, which I liked because Tommy is talented. He knows who to put on and what to do. Tommy had gotten fired from his show, but was continuing to run my show. CBS didn't like that. They didn't even want me to have him on the show. He must've really wised off to somebody at CBS.

That was a great time for music. You don't really see that on TV, like The Andy Williams Show, The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour, The Smothers Brothers. There just isn't that kind of stuff on TV.

I looked up the show on Wikipedia and found an incredible range of musicians who appeared on this show. In addition to those on the DVD, there was also Ella Fitzgerald, The Supremes, Don Ho, The Association – very diverse group. Did the network ever wonder what you were trying to do?

Yeah, I was trying to blend the music, whether it was bluegrass, country, rock or pop. I liked to pair up Ella Fitzgerald with, say, Willie Nelson. That was such a great pairing. Can you imagine that?

It wasn't until I watched the bonus interview that I learned that you were never part of the Nashville scene. You were always in L.A.

That's where I was doing the studio work. I would rather live in L.A. than Nashville. I'm not being prejudiced when I say that. Nashville's a great town, but I prefer the West Coast. I grew up in Nashville-type weather in Arkansas, so I wanted to get out of anyplace that was cold.

Did being in L.A. give you a different perspective when it came to choosing songs? I mean, you recorded everything from Bob Dylan to "The Impossible Dream" from Man Of La Mancha. It doesn’t seem like you could have had that much diversity if you had been in Nashville.

No, I don't think so, either. It wasn't as noticeable then as it is now, but there was some diversity. Think of Johnny Cash's "Ring Of Fire," that's blending country and trumpets. He was fabulous.

In your session days, you were primarily a 12-string guitar. This was the time of the Byrds, and the folk-rock sound, so did playing a 12-string help you get work?

Oh, yeah. I had a six-string, and then I got my 12-string, and it sounded differently from everybody else out there. Open ringing chords on a 12-string with a capo sounds great.

In some of the reading I've done of the LA scene, I heard – I think it might have been from Hal Blaine – that you were responsible for keeping those sessions light with a lot of joking around. Do you remember anything in particular from those days?

Musicians are funny. Tommy Tedesco and Sid Sharp – he was the head of the string section – they were funny, funny guys, and real talented. There never was, at any session that I can remember, I don't believe I felt any tension from anybody. Everybody was there to make music, and they all knew we could play. Those were the most fun days of my life, except for getting married. My wife's here, I gotta say that.

1967 was a breakout year for you, with "Gentle On My Mind" and "By The Time I Get To Phoenix," which began your longtime association with Jimmy Webb. How did you meet him?

I was coming out of Studio 3 at United, and I saw "By The Time I Get To Phoenix." I'm from Arkansas, and I didn't know if it was the bird coming out of the ashes or what. So, I was curious enough to pick it up. And when I played it, I had tears running down my face. It made me so homesick. I got into my '42 Mercury and drove to Arkansas to see Mom and Dad and everybody. I was down there for three or four days, then had to go back to slaving over a hot guitar.

After working with Brian Wilson and then going onto Jimmy Webb and the things they were doing with melodies and chord changes, did ever you look at the songs and wonder how they made that happen?

They'll hang onto one note. I once told Jimmy, "You play 75 chords with me hanging on one note." But he made it work. His string writing was truly exceptional.

Over the next few years you had a remarkable string of hits, most notably "Wichita Lineman" and "Galveston." That period, the late '60s and early '70s, is remembered as a very turbulent time, but your music is quiet and contemplative. Do you think that a large part of the success was because it gave people the opportunity to put all that out of their minds?

I think so. Like I said, I got up and drove all the way to Arkansas because I got homesick from listening to one of Jimmy Webb's songs. He wrote about longing for home, and longing for love, and everything he wrote was so good. Have you heard the song he wrote about Gaugin? ["Paul Gaugin In The South Seas"]. It's on his new album, and it's just the most incredible song I've ever heard. I don't know if it will commercially be a hit, because not a lot of people know who Gaugin was.

And then, in 1975, came "Rhinestone Cowboy," and "Southern Nights" two years after that. Ten years earlier you're locked in the studio recording "Strangers In The Night" with Sinatra and now you're one of the biggest stars in the country.

If I had do it all over, I wouldn't have kept as busy. I was always going somewhere, on the road doing this and that. I think I probably would have cooled it a little more. (sings) "If I knew then what I know now. I would have…" That's a good song.

I want to ask you about two of your biggest hits being done by other people. Elvis Presley covered "Gentle On My Mind" in an arrangement and style very similar to yours. What did that mean to you to have him pay tribute like that?

Elvis and I were friends before that. In fact, he called me up and said, "Campbell, I like that song." I said, "Who is this?" And he laughed and said, "It's Elvis." We grew up the same way, picking cotton and looking a mule in the butt. So we really hit it off. I thought he was the nicest guy, real friendly, and the best-looking guy, too. Plus, the guy was an incredible singer.

And I'm sure that over the past 40 years, you've had time to listen to all 18 minutes of Isaac Hayes' "By The Time I Get To Phoenix." What did you think when you heard that?

I thought it was great. You don't get a whole lot of radio play with an 18-minute song. I just wanted to say what the words said and get out of the way. I didn't want to drag it out.

Finally, what lies ahead for you?

God only knows. That was good song, too. (sings) "God only knows what I'd be without you." I'll tell you this. That was one of the most special times of my life, getting to play rhythm guitar with my capo for all those artists I got to work with, like Sinatra and Dean Martin, The Beach Boys, Mamas and Papas. I got to play rhythm guitar for everybody in the business. I get chills just thinking that I got to do that.

You can hear this interview in its entirety at Wings For Wheels.

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