Inside Glen Campbell's Classic Forgotten Albums
From 1972's stunning 'Glen Travis Campbell' to a 1974 tribute to Hank Williams, some of the late country star's best work is largely unknown
Pop-country superstar Glen Campbell died last week, at the age of 81, and since then we've seen a similar thumbnail history of his career recited in obit after remembrance after memorial. First, there was the catchy folkie romanticism of Campbell's breakthrough record and variety show theme song, "Gentle on Mind." Next came that unsurpassed triumvirate of grown-ass pop – "By the Time I Get to Phoenix," "Wichita Lineman" and "Galveston" – each a Jimmy Webb-penned and Al De Lory-produced masterpiece. There were the iconic successes of Campbell's "Rhinestone Cowboy" and "Country Boy," too. And then, finally, Campbell's world-conquering version of Allen Toussaint's "Southern Nights." This remarkable chart run – combined with his earlier studio work as a member of the Wrecking Crew – is what Campbell's current critical reputation is based upon, however decades belated that reputation has been in coming. Together, these recordings would stand as a major body of work even if Campbell had never sung or played another note. Can we agree that Campbell, already a Country Music Hall of Famer, should become a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member, too?
But let's not forget just how much of Campbell's 1970s work is typically omitted from the conventional telling. For one thing, it elides the string of successes Campbell enjoyed immediately after "Galveston" – not on the pop charts, but on country radio. "Try a Little Kindness" and "Honey Come Back," yet another Jimmy Webb song, were both Top Five country hits. His updating of the Roy Orbison hit "Dream Baby," and a version of the old Conway Twitty power ballad "It's Only Make Believe," sung in stratospheric Orbison style, were big country hits too, as was his everybody-join-in-and-sing-along duet with Bobbie Gentry on the Everlys' "All I Have to Is Dream."
Even accounting for these hit singles, we've barely scratched the surface of Campbell's output during his classic period. It's perhaps hard to get our heads around today, but between the Galveston album, in 1969, and Rhinestone Cowboy, in 1975, Campbell released 18 other albums. Nearly all of them are little known today – several are long out of print – but they include music as great as any he ever recorded and, in some respects, as representative and influential, too.
Just a partial listing of this donut hole in the Campbell catalog: Oh Happy Day, a first-rate pop gospel effort; a pair of soundtrack albums, for True Grit and Norbert; a Christmas album; a duet album with Anne Murray; another duet project, Ernie Sings & Glen Picks, that's a charming just-hanging-on-the front porch collaboration with one of Campbell's pop-country forebears, Tennessee Ernie Ford; a best-of set for which Greatest Hits is a preposterously understated title; and two concert albums, the first of which, Glen Campbell "Live": The 2-Record Album From His Sell-Out New Jersey Concert!, perhaps comes nearest to capturing the breadth of Campbell's pop-rock-country aesthetic in one release. Campbell opens the show juxtaposing a Sondheim lyric with a George Jones classic delivered with plenty of red-hot electric licks, then he covers Jimmy Webb and Otis Redding, "Mountain Dew" and "The Impossible Dream," salutes his parents on their wedding anniversary by telling the corniest joke you've ever heard, is backed by a full orchestra nearly throughout and concludes with a one-two punch of "Yakety Sax" and "The Lord's Prayer."
"Ladies and gentlemen…" the public-address announcer declares: "Glen Campbell!"
As the Sixties ended, Campbell was a ubiquitous pop-culture presence; he topped the country album chart a half-dozen times in 1968 alone. But as the Seventies took hold his sales and airplay at first slowed, then fell off a table, at least when contrasted with earlier heights. Looking to keep the hits coming, Campbell parted ways with De Lory and teamed with another old friend from his Wrecking Crew days, Jimmy Bowen. In 1966, he'd been the producer when Campbell backed Frank Sinatra on "Strangers in the Night."
This change didn't pay off commercially but did result in a quartet of fantastic records. The last of these, Reunion: The Songs of Jimmy Webb, with piano and arrangements by Webb himself, was the final album Campbell released before Rhinestone Cowboy and is the only album from this period that remains relatively well-known today. (These collaborations with Campbell were also key to convincing Bowen to leave L.A. for Nashville, where he was soon working with Tompall Glaser and Mel Tillis, Hank Williams Jr. and Merle Haggard.)
The best Campbell-Bowen collaboration was 1972's Glen Travis Campbell. Album opener "I Will Never Pass This Way Again" is a stunning and sky-rocketing, Elvis-descended and string-bejeweled ballad of the type that in its moment would have been placed in that now quaint record store bin, "Inspirational." "One Last Time" combines acoustic strumming with gut-punch strings as Campbell begs for what he wants most and cries over what he's already lost. Both tracks were released to radio and bombed, but both deserve spots on the short list of Campbell's finest.
This pattern of great music with diminishing sales mostly continued for the duration of Campbell's time with Bowen. "I Knew Jesus (Before He Was a Star)," the title track single to a 1973 album, bounced with Pentecostal joy but could barely crack either the pop or country Top 50s. A Hank Williams tribute album the following year had seemingly scant pop potential to begin with; it's what even then might have been called "over-produced." Heard today, though, its loping rhythms and sweet string sections prove an effective delivery system for some of the highest and most lonesome vocals of Campbell's consistently high and lonesome career – the arrangements work like silk sheets clutched in a bed you no longer share with the love of your life, or like a tall, cold glass of milk to help Glen chase down 10 of Hank's bitterest pills. If Ray Charles or Dean Martin had sung these same songs over these arrangements, or if anyone with more authenticity cred already built up than Campbell had, or with greater kitsch appeal, the album might now be considered something of a pop-country cult classic. As it is, I Remember Hank Williams isn't even underrated these days. It's just unknown.
We can say the same for most of Campbell's catalog. Within a couple of years of that Hank tribute, Campbell would change his producer again, teaming with Dennis Lambert and Brian Potter for "Rhinestone Cowboy." The rest, as they say, is history, though much of that musical history remains untold. We haven't even touched here upon the recordings Campbell made in the 1980s, several more country hits included, or in the 1990s when his work increasingly turned to gospel and contemporary Christian music. Perhaps Campbell's death will at least help make more of his music available and will inspire more of his fans, new and old, to listen beyond those amazing early hits and late-in-life comeback albums. We all know the Glen Campbell catalogue is a major body of work. But, really, we don't know the half of it.