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Reflections On a Perfect Song: “Wichita Lineman”

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In 1968, when I first heard “Wichita Lineman,” I was struck by how perfect a song it was. Simple, heartfelt, entrancing. Gorgeous. My feelings for the song have never abated. Shimmering strings pour through the speakers like liquid gold before Glen Campbell’s simple yet evocative narration begins: “I am a lineman for the county/And I drive the main road/Searching in the sun for another overload.” The lineman’s loneliness is palpable, and you can picture him driving over flatlands dotted with telephone poles that stretch on and on into a coppery dusk.

Glen CampbellYes, our narrator tells us, he needs a small vacation. But right now his responsibility to his job supersedes the idea. In four short verses, songwriter Jimmy Webb masterfully evokes the lineman’s melancholia, frustration and yearning for a love he rarely sees. “I need you more than want you/And I want you for all time,” the lineman sings, proclaiming his longing for the woman who is so far away. This longing is so strong, he swears he can hear her “singing in the wire.” His futility is even more evident as he concludes, “And the Wichita Lineman is still on the line.”

The sight of a solitary lineman working in rural Oklahoma provided Jimmy Webb with the inspiration to create what Rolling Stone calls one of the 500 greatest songs ever written. I will, at times, disagree with that publication, but not in this case. There is not one superfluous note or poorly written sentiment in “Wichita Lineman.”

Near the end of the record, an instrumental break is provided by Campbell playing lead on the electric bass. This reflective rendering of the main melody on the low end of the strings is a poignant reminder of the lineman’s sadness and heartbreak: more powerful for the absence of words. Coming before the final chorus, it is a fitting penultimate musical brushstroke to a perfect song.

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About Mindy Peterman

  • Tim J

    Absolutely, a perfect song…

  • http://atlantarofters.blogspot.com The Sanity Inspector

    It is indeed gorgeous. There are a lot of great cover versions of it out there, too. Guitarist Johnny A does a lovely instrumental version of it, which you can see on YouTube. Also on YT is someone’s videotape of a Japanese bar band, The Swinging Doors, dressed up in cowboy gear, playing the song. What’s remarkable is that orchestral parts and bass solo are replaced with a pedal steel guitar. It’s amazing: the song gains a homey, plainspun quality, without losing its poignancy.

  • Mindy

    Thanks for the heads up, Sanity Inspector. I will head over to YT and check those out.

  • lenguamor

    Thank you for this. I remember watching Glen Campbell perform the song on his show when I was a child, and loving it even then. It is two-plus minutes of pure beauty.

  • Rick B

    You can see Glen Campbell playing a rare Fender VI bass 6 string guitar on YouTube, not a standard bass. Also the shimmering sounds, evoking the wires, at the end were one of the very first recorded synthesizer sounds on a pop record.

    Even this live version is exquisite.

  • Rick B

    Would also like to add that Jimmy Webb has written several of my all time faves, including By The Time I Get To Phoenix, Galveston, Didn’t We, Worst That Could Happen, and the aforementioned Witchita Lineman, among others. After the success of Phoenix, Campbell’s team kept requesting more like it, hence Witchita and Galveston. 10 Easy Pieces by Webb is a must-own.

  • Mindy

    Rick: Thanks for the info and the link.

  • musicmom

    This is the first time I’ve commented on the obsessive amount of music reviews and reseach I read. I am not a musician,, but a true music lover – like the air I breathe. I refrain because I don’t like the idea that anyone can comment and act like an expert, or deem themselves worthy of “an opinion that too many take to heart. I wouldn’t want to mislead people – I don’t consider myself a music critic by any stretch, BUT, Wichita Lineman is in my top 10 (that’s a big statement) and though I surely haven’t touched the surface, and never will, of hearing all the songs ever, these are my favorite, most brilliant lyrics ever, hands down of any song I’ve ever heard. I just read the Webb review and couldn’t belieive he wrote it in a few hours. It makes me think it was a fluke, and I’ve always wondered if it was genious stumbled upon, or was every word considered and pondered with precision. In 2 verses (one half repeated) NO refrain, NO bridge, Webb manages to relay a moment in a man’s life, almost a meloncoly sigh, and I felt everything, I “heard him”. This was written in the first person so this simple linesman had to convey to us so much, with very simple words – his deep-felt feelings – possibly without really fully knowing them himself – . If there would have been metaphor, big embellished verbage, it would have been contrived, dishonest. Now, Mr. Blog critic. I so disagree with you, but don’t take offense, I’ve never found another interpretaion of this song that matches mine. This lineman is NOT lonely. He is a solitary person living a life he has chosen. I’m sure of that. There are loads of people like that and why must we always asume they are so pathetic. He works a monotoous stretch of highway, alone, by choice. I totally get that he lives alone, and he is not PINING for a lost love. And he clearly picks up a radio signal woman singing on the wire. There’s nothing imagined in this song, no mysterious hidden meanings. It’s truth as he would tell it. And that’s when it happens…his usual day is so unexpectedly, and overwhelmingly interrupted by a “kick in the gut” feeling of loneliness that he would have never seen coming. He says” I need you more than want you.” Then must let the listener know how much that it is …so, he gives us a measure. “I want you for all time.” This is so unusal for him that he wonders if he just needs to get away, and in 3 comments – the best of the song, he tells us so much about who he is. He only vacations when it rains since naturally you can’t work with electricity in the rain, and so he waits to take a day off – when he can’t fulfill his duties. PLUS he’s concerned it might snow and knows of some lines that will fail under the weight so he must be there to fix them. He is counted on, he is integral, so..oh well…no vacation…and…the Witchita Lineman is still on the line..the moment is over. It was important to share with us, it was big. He doesn’t go around sharing all his personal feelings but he needed to own this. But he’s ok now. He’s who he is. If you listen to Webb’s piano score, his intro and outro our very monotoous and move down the keyboard in a winding way and I can feel the lineman driving down the highway. Starting and ending in that matter say to me that he’s ok. I may be a total loon, but that’s what I get. I’m sticking to it. I hope Mr. Webb would not be offended by the certainty I feel about this song. I don’t care who sings it who wins what awards, I was 3 when Glen Campbell recorded it and I unexplainably loved it as a little girl if I was lucky to catch it on the radio, I still love it. It’s writing at it’s best to this music-mom.

  • Bill Sheridan

    I am a 52-year old male from the USA, and I truly believe the best songwriter in the history of the world is Jimmy Webb. I had the amazing pleasure to see him perform his songs and tell inside stories (unreal) in tiny little Jim Thorpe, PA last summer. I currently run two radio stations, and have heard tens of thousands of songs in my career, but in my humble opinion there is nobody that comes close to having the songwriting talent that the tunesmith Jimmy Webb. I can almost guarantee that in my lifetime, no one will compose songs with such incredibly intricate melodies and raw lyrics than this genius could. I am thankful I was around to hear them.