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.
Yes, 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.