When it comes to pop music and the everyday epiphanies we experience courtesy of the magic of reproducible sound, no singer has provided more indelible moments than Glen Campbell. Unlike other pop titans who have written their own material and given listeners an idiosyncratic view of the world, Campbell has always been an interpreter — a man with a guitar and an all-American voice who has capitalized on a pervasive, crippling wistfulness and alienation that are among American culture's defining characteristics. Campbell is a major artist, but his achievement remains somewhat elusive, and this year's news that the singer has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease seems to signal the end of his career. If this is true, Campbell will be going out on a high note — over the past four years, he's made two records that stand with his best and most ruggedly individualistic work.
Produced by Julian Raymond, this year's full-length release Ghost on the Canvas finds Campbell coming to terms with what one could call the late power-pop era — not to mention his mortality and his myth. In some ways a fuller expression of Campbell's artistry than 2008's Raymond-produced Meet Glen Campbell, the new record alludes to the string of glorious hits the singer enjoyed in the late '60s. It's wistful all right, and Ghost on the Canvas finds Campbell covering such beloved middle-of-the-road songwriters as The Replacements' Paul Westerberg and Guided by Voices' Robert Pollard and writing a few himself. It's a successful modernization, but Campbell had to be eased gently into the post-punk, post-indie-rock era.
"What I had to do with Glen — because he's such a lyric-and-melody guy — was literally cut demos of these songs, like [Westerberg's] 'Sadly Beautiful,' or 'Jesus' by The Velvet Underground," Raymond says. "Some of the original versions were kinda raw, and I thought he wouldn't get it. We originally started out playing things by other people in their recorded versions, and some of the instrumentation and the guitar sounds were just too far out. So what we presented Glen sounded like songwriter demos."
For Raymond, a native of Portland, Ore., who had cut his teeth as staff producer for various labels, working with Campbell was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. "They approached me at Capitol [Records] and said, 'Look, we've got all these great historic icons we've had in the past here, and would you like to do a record with any of them to try to bring 'em back?' I saw Glen Campbell's name, and I knew my parents would love it, so we took a stab at it and did the Meet Glen Campbell record in about two weeks."
Raymond met Campbell and began the process of selecting the songs that ended up on Meet Glen Campbell. The production strategy Raymond had in mind harked back to Campbell's work with songwriter Jimmy Webb and arranger Al DeLory, whose contributions to such classic tracks as "Wichita Lineman" and "Galveston" helped elevate Campbell to the top rank of popular singers.
"I knew no matter what we did, we were gonna get tagged for doin' the Rick Rubin-Johnny Cash thing, and I didn't want to do that," Raymond says. "I changed the structures and most of the songs as much as I could to sound like the great Al DeLory-Jimmy Webb stuff. I mean, there's nothing on our records that's better than 'Wichita' or 'By the Time I Get to Phoenix.' I don't know if anyone can write as good a song as that now. But we tried to make modern records that had the musicality and chord changes of those late-'60s records."
Although Campbell shot to stardom in 1967 with his version of John Hartford's "Gentle on My Mind," the singer had been playing and recording since the '50s. Born in Arkansas in 1936, Campbell became an in-demand session guitarist in Los Angeles as part of the famed Wrecking Crew — a group of top-flight musicians that included bassist Carol Kaye, guitarist Tommy Tedesco and drummer Hal Blaine. Campbell played on sessions by The Beach Boys and Phil Spector, and filled in for Brian Wilson in The Beach Boys when the high-strung pop auteur declined to tour with the band in 1964 and 1965.
In his early days, Campbell recorded bluegrass-tinged country on the 1962 Big Bluegrass Special album cut with The Green River Boys — a group that included the Louisiana-born guitarist James Burton. He also essayed Wilson's "Guess I'm Dumb," a winsome 1965 composition that showcased Campbell's flexible voice. Campbell's nimble instrumental skills would have assured him a place in pop-music history, but it was his reading of Webb's sublime place-name songs "Wichita Lineman" and "Galveston" that made him a star.
When you listen to Campbell's late-'60s work, you sense how artfully Campbell and his collaborators took advantage of the prevailing mood of the era. Webb's songs made a case for the laconic American loner lost in a vast country, while Campbell's 1968 version of Sonny Curtis' "The Straight Life" bridged the gap between footloose bohemianism and the homespun banalities of the Mayberry RFD television show. Campbell's '60s recordings seemed to suggest that alienation, nostalgia and rootlessness were now ready for mass consumption — the superstar even covered Harry Nilsson's hard-edged "Without Her." If Campbell didn't delve into alienation as deeply as did Nilsson on his supremely wistful 1967 album Pandemonium Shadow Show, that was just to make sure the hits kept on coming.
Raymond says there were songs that Campbell didn't get around to interpreting — of course, at this point, the melancholy reality is that Campbell won't ever get around to recording them. "Big Star's 'The Ballad of El Goodo' was on the master list we had," Raymond says. "And we cut a performance of Roxy Music's 'More Than This' with the guys, but didn't put the vocal on it. Glen was cool to do it, though."