Although I was in a public location when a friend texted news that eighty-one-year old Glen Campbell had passed away, I still reacted audibly. The contemporary music icon had been ill for a number of years, of course — in 2011, it was announced he was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease — so his passing wasn’t a complete surprise. Still, the announcement took me aback — I’ve been a fan for years.
One of my earliest memories is sitting on the floor of my buddy’s family room, listening to Campbell’s magisterial Witchita Lineman on one of those 1960s-era phonographs. Remember them? Little more than a plastic box, practically a toy masquerading as a record player. But the low-tech equipment couldn’t quench Glen Campbell’s irresistible talents from clamping a lifetime hold on me.
Indeed, he was a gigantically gifted, strikingly versatile musician: superlative instrumentalist (12-string guitar, bass, mandolin, banjo, bagpipes), sui generis vocalist, skilled songwriter, beaming with what Rolling Stone magazine aptly identified “boyish charisma”. That professional résumé smokes any doubt about his artistic worthiness. The Associated Press details: “He won five Grammys, sold more than 45 million records, had 12 gold albums and 75 chart hits, including No. 1 songs with ‘Rhinestone Cowboy’ and ‘Southern Nights.’ “
Generating more than seventy albums, spanning country, pop, folk, rock and gospel genres, he twice earned album of the year awards from the Academy of Country Music. His pieces were nominated two times for Oscars.
For three-and-one-half seasons (late-60s/early-70s) he fronted the weekly variety show The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour. In 1969’s True Grit, he starred alongside John Wayne. That same year? His music sales bested the Beatles.
Pegged by Rolling Stone as the seventeenth greatest country artist of all time, this radio-staple virtuoso’s final release was June 2017’s Adiós — a catalogue of tracks beloved but never before recorded by him. Laid down in Nashville between 2012 and 2013, it finally hit shelves two months before his death.
There’s no denying GC’s formidable “picking” (Leon Russell dubbed him “the best guitar player I’d heard before or since.”) But, perhaps more striking? That voice; “a velvety tenor”, someone described it. Soaring, emotive, haunting.
Brian Wilson: ” [H]e’s a great guitar player, but he’s even a better singer”.
Bruce Springsteen’s breakdown nails it: “Pure tone … never fancy. Wasn’t singing all over the place … [S]imple on the surface but … a world of emotion underneath.”
Arguably no one next to Karen Carpenter could “do melancholy” better than the Arkansas native. Jimmy Webb, who penned Campbell chart-toppers “Lineman”, “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”, “Galveston” and “Still Within the Sound of My Voice” captured part of his allure: “Heartache never sounded so good.”
Another of my boyhood Glen Campbell memories: my Grandmother’s mentioning to me she’d heard he was “a very religious man”. Sadly, what became painfully obvious was that, although his work often featured Christian references and ideals, at some point he lost sight of what “religion” is supposed to be all about.
In a clichéd scenario worthy of bad cinema, fame-and-fortune’s effect on the former sharecropper wasn’t flattering. He developed a corrosive fondness for alcohol and cocaine which stalked him through four marriages and a notorious tryst with country-music chanteuse Tanya Tucker, resulted in a near-overdose in Las Vegas and eventually sparked an embarrassing, 2003 run-in with law-enforcement.
USA Today‘s evaluation: “[I]ncreasingly erratic … [and by 1981] completely out of control.”
Then, early 1980s: Transformation. Reportedly, booze could turn the famously affable crooner into a surly jerk; but Campbell was reminded that while God hates jerkiness, He dearly loves jerks and aims to transfigure them into better people. The substance-abusing superstar experienced a dramatic Christian conversion, surrendering himself to Jesus Christ. His cocaine use went by the wayside; as did the drunkenness, although that one took longer.
There was yet another stab at marriage — one that “took” because, this time around, his Redeemer was at the center of the relationship. Candidly, there was at least one ignominious lapse in his sobriety (the aforementioned DUI arrest, for which he abjectly apologized.)
In any case, the legendary entertainer latched unashamedly onto a pair of foundational, universal truths: he was a sinner in need of forgiveness; and his Creator wanted to rescue him from a destructive trajectory which well might have ground him into ruin. He was, Campbell said, “like a drowning man grasping for a life preserver,”
For Glen Campbell it wasn’t only a matter of “Jesus, bail me out of my mess, but don’t tamper with my life.” No, for him his Savior was also his Lord.
Although writer Flannery O’Connor was a well-known, kindred Southerner, I’m not sure GC ever read her stuff. That said, he evidently took to heart her warning: “All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful.” Thankfully, in Glen Campbell’s case, it also became glorious.
His end, admittedly, was tough — but when, at last, he succumbed to the neurodegenerative affliction which blighted those twilight years, he was surrounded by a loving wife and children who can now cherish fond memories he built with them. It obviously could have wrapped up another way: his self-inflicted, celebrity-fueled foolhardiness could have cut him down many seasons ago; or irrecoverably alienated whatever family he had left.
Because of God’s incomparable mercies, that wasn’t the singer’s denouement.
My brother Gary, a committed follower of Jesus and fellow Glen Campbell aficionado from way back, passed away over thirteen years ago. Soon after one of my other siblings heard about GC’s passing, he sent a message: “You know Gary was first in line to greet him.”
Which is another reason for me to rejoice the “Rhinestone Cowboy” found the “Way, Truth and Life”: I’m also looking forward to meeting Glen Campbell one day; maybe he’ll be visiting with my brother Gary at the time.
Image: Excerpted from: Arnielee – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17661556