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On Aug. 8, the pop-country singer and guitarist extraordinaire Glen Campbell lost his much-publicized battle with Alzheimer’s. He was 81.
Encomiums poured in. “Glen’s music came from an era that will never exist again,” wrote the Marshall Tucker Band’s Doug Gray. “His unique sound and ability to touch his audience was something many musicians can never reach.” “He could do it all,” added the country singer-songwriter Aaron Tippin.
The “all” that Campbell could do included ace behind-the-scenes musicianship (as a member of the hit-making Wrecking Crew in the 1960s), superlative musical pinch hitting (as Brian Wilson’s mid-’60s replacement in the Beach Boys), charismatic showmanship (as the host of The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour), and the ability to make good songs sound great, especially when coming out of an AM radio.
He’d been paying dues for a decade when in 1968 his recording of Jimmy Webb’s “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” became his first single to become both a country and a pop hit. He repeated the accomplishment 18 more times, most notably with Webb’s “Wichita Lineman” and “Galveston,” Lambert-Potter’s “Country Boy (You Got Your Feet in L.A.)”, Allen Toussaint’s “Southern Nights,” and Larry Weiss’ “Rhinestone Cowboy.” Fifteen of his albums crossed over and back as well.
Such stylistic fluidity made Campbell hard to classify and often found critics dismissing him as “middle of the road.” Consequently, they seldom took him any more seriously than they did other musicians who parlayed their popularity into TV variety shows. The de facto “uncool” gospel albums that he recorded after embracing Christianity in the 1980s didn’t help.
Then, in the mid-’90s, Johnny Cash, whose career had followed a trajectory similar to Campbell’s, began making stark albums of material originally associated with rock and folk performers, and the critics took notice. By the time Cash died, the regard in which he was held as an artist was higher than it had been at any time since his Live at Folsom Prison peak over 30 years before.
In 2008, Campbell followed suit. On the tongue-in-cheek-titled Meet Glen Campbell, he sang songs by Lou Reed, John Lennon, U2, Green Day, Foo Fighters, Tom Petty, Jackson Browne, Paul Westerberg, and Travis. The follow-up, 2011’s Ghost on the Canvas, added the second-generation au courant songwriters Jakob Dylan and Teddy Thompson to Campbell’s repertoire.
Between those recordings, Campbell was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Racing against the clock, he undertook a farewell tour (heartbreakingly chronicled in the 2014 documentary Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me). He then made one final album, the recently released Adiós (Universal).
Adiós is a testament to Campbell’s resilience and a miracle of editing: His vocal takes were spliced together so seamlessly that one would never guess they’d been recorded line by line with the patient prompting of his producer Carl Jackson. And unlike Ghost on the Canvas or its follow-up See You There, which were also intended (and billed) as swan songs, it feels like vintage Glen Campbell.
There are, for instance, four Jimmy Webb songs that Campbell loved but had never previously recorded (the title track among them). And there’s a brisk cover of Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin’” that recalls Campbell’s early hit “Gentle on My Mind.” Mainly, though, there’s Campbell’s singing.
As a young man, Campbell specialized in dramatizing and universalizing the loneliness of a wide variety of emotionally stranded characters to whom he gave poignant voice. Now, whether he knew it or not, he was dramatizing and universalizing his own—and, somehow (miraculously?), doing it very well.