Off the Beaten Path with Glen Campbell

by Max Sparber

Glen Campbell passed away yesterday at the age of 81, leaving behind a unique musical legacy. Although born in Arkansas, the bulk of Campbell's career was spent in Hollywood, first as a session musician with the legendary Wrecking Crew, later as a solo artist, and briefly as a member of the band The Champs, most famous for their song "Tequila."

The Hollywood influence is undeniable, especially in the late 60s and 70s, when Campbell's output included a lot of the country equivalent of soft rock. Soft rock wasn't an exclusively Los Angeles phenomenon, but LA was its epicenter, the city that recorded The Carpenters, Seals and Croft (also veterans of The Champs, and early collaborators with Campbell), Fleetwood Mac, Boz Scaggs, Captain & Tennille, Carole King, and dozens of others.

There seems to have been something about the 70s in LA that encouraged singer/songwriters to lounge by the beach, make love in hot tubs, drink chianti, and sing about it over lust arrangements. Campbell was among the first to apply this sound to country music, and, with songs like "Wichita Lineman" and "Rhinestone Cowboy," he did it perfectly.

But no artist is simply one thing. The soft country songs, especially those written by Jimmy Webb, were Campbell's biggest hits, and likely what he will be remembered for, but he had complicated tastes. He was a huge fan of Roy Orbison, and was one of the few vocalists who could handle Orbison's challenging repertoire; as a result, you can go through Campbell's records and piece together a collection that comprises almost all of Orbison's hits.

Campbell was Christian, and so repeatedly returned to country gospel, and he also had a taste for the big, lush sound of the classic Nashville years, and so even on his 70s albums, you hear songs that sound like they might have been produced by Owen Bradley in the 1950s. He also had a taste for soul music and primitive rock and roll, and those influences will pop in now and again.

Here's a short list of terrific Glen Campbell songs that are, for one reason or another, a little off the beaten path.

"Beef Jerky," 1965

Before Campbell committed fully to country music, he put out a 1965 album called "The Big Bad Rock Guitar of Glen Campbell," and it's superb, with every song sounding like a Tom Jones recording with Campbell's guitar replacing Jones's voice. "Beef Jerky" is my favorite, a noisy, sloppy instrumental with Campbell playing garage rock lead guitar over a horn section that should properly be playing behind go-go dancers in a spy movie satire.

"A Freeborn Man," 1968

Ostensibly a song about the pleasures of the hobo life, this bouncy number rides along on a majestic brass section and a guitar part that seems mostly to consist of Campbell playing one note and bending it until it sounds worried. Most of the song consists of Campbell singing about how he ran away when a little boy and now intimately knows the backroads and railroads on America. One suspects the real point of the song comes midway through, when Campbell starts bragging about the lovers he has in various states.

"Break My Mind," 1968

This 1968 song was written by John D. Loudermilk, who is best-known for "Indian Reservation," his ode to the privations suffered by Native Americans, and the memorable "Tobacco Road," a song about being both disgusted by and nostalgic for the trashy neighborhood of your childhood. This song, over a frenetic country-blues guitar part, has Campbell chasing his lover to the airport to plead with her not to leave. It's hard to tell if she is breaking up with him or if he simply is going to miss her, but he chooses an unusual, far-too-aggressive tack to convince her to stay: He threatens to go mad.

"Oh What a Woman," 1969

This 1969 song from Campbells' superb "Galveston" album is credited to one Jerry Hubbard, but the songwriter is better known by his first and middle name: Jerry Reed. It's not surprising that Campbell, a superb guitarist, would be attracted to Reed's songwriting, as Reed married country music with Joe Tex-style rhythm and blues, featuring funky, herky jerky guitar parts; Reed's entire career sometimes seems to be an attempt to endlessly write country variations of Tex's "I Gotcha." This is classic Reed, ostensibly a love song but filled with sarcastic asides about misbehaving women, buoyed an energetic performance from Campbell and an absolutely superb soul brass section.

"And the World Keeps Spinning," 1970

A frantic song set in the aftermath of some unnamed loss, this 1970 recording isn't a country song at all; it has more in common with the folk-tinged psychedelic garage rock of the era than anything else. The song is built atop a driving bass line and a jagged acoustic guitar riff. The chorus soars, with howling strings and a Campbell sounding like he's falling apart.

"Repo Man," 1970

The best song from Campbell's all-but-forgotten 1970 film "Norwood," "Repo Man" was written by Mac Davis and musically sounds a bit like Davis's hit for Elvis Presley, "A Little Less Conversation." It's a wilder song, though, featuring some of Davis's most playful lyrics, a babbling stream of inner-line rhymes about a city slicker with flashy clothes and car who is constantly sneaking away when the repo man show up.

"I Knew Jesus (Before He Was a Star), 1973

Campbell's country gospel songs tended to be pretty straightforward, but this, the title track from a 1973 album of Christian music, is enjoyably bizarre. It's an answer song to "Jesus Christ Superstar," written by Neal Hefti, who is probably most famous for writing the Batman theme. The song is raucous, sounding written for a rock opera, including an incredibly perky, ever-present rock gospel chorus. The theme of the song is simple, a Christian version of the classic hipster complaint about liking a band before they went mainstream.

"Bonaparte's Retreat," 1974

One of Campbell's most surprising covers, "Bonaparte's Retreat" is a song by cowboy singer Pee Wee King but first recorded as a solid swing number by Kay Starr in 1950. Campbell seems determined to reclaim it as a country song, and it starts solidly country, with a bouncy bass, Cajun melody and solo guitar that sounds inspired by the lap steel solos in Western Swing. However, the song, about two lovers dancing, quickly goes off the rails, with bagpipe solos, and later a fiddle and bagpipe duet. By the end of the song the bagpipes have taken over the song, and it has stopped being a country song, but become a bagpipe song, and why?

"Southern Nights," 1977

This title track from a 1977 album sometimes winds up on lists of country disco songs. It's not that, precisely, but it does sound like something that would send white people onto the dance floor in the South California beachside discotheque. Campbell's production, backed by ragtime banjo and nightclub female vocals, sounds a bit like country music by way of Paul Williams. In fact, its a remake of a song by the superb New Orleans R&B singer/songwriter Allen Toussaint, and the original manages to have an absolutely identical melody but a psychedelic production that makes it sound like a pop song transmitted from Venus.


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