In Conversation: Glen Campbell

Full interview from Clash archives with the late, great country superstar

Glen Campbell, the country superstar and renowned guitarist, died this week at the age of 81, following a long and brave battle with Alzheimer’s disease. After receiving his diagnosis in 2010, he was determined to persevere with what he loved best, and continued making music, producing three new albums that bookended a spectacular and triumphant career of a country boy made good.

Born in Arkansas in 1936, as one of 12 children Glen was expected to work the cotton fields to generate income for his family, but soon realised that playing guitar could mean more money for less labour. By 17, he’d left home to join his uncle’s band, Dick Bills and the Sandia Mountain Boys, then played the circuits with his own outfit, the Western Wranglers.

At age 24, he relocated to Los Angeles, where his talents landed him a role in the infamous Wrecking Crew, a group of dedicated session musicians who backed an incredible array of artists including Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley and The Beach Boys, with whom he toured in the mid-’60s, while simultaneously continuing to carve his own solo career.

Elvis Presley and Glen Campbell

He finally found success in 1967 with ‘Gentle On My Mind’, quickly following it up with the impeccable hits ‘By The Time I Get To Phoenix’ and ‘Wichita Lineman’. His fame reached stratospheric heights as his TV show reached the homes of every American, by 1969 outselling even The Beatles, and then the big screen came calling.

‘Rhinestone Cowboy’, perhaps his signature hit, arrived in 1975, but Campbell wasn’t an example of country music’s sparkly side – a committed singer-songwriter, it was his dedication to his craft that shone through; his musicianship and guitar skills were exceptional, while his belief in the power of song was palpable.

Life wasn’t always rosy for Glen, however – drink and drugs sank him to his lowest depths, as his addictions spiraled amid volatile relationship breakdowns and run-ins with the law. Thanks to the love and support of Kim, whom he married in 1982, and a renewed faith in God, Glen cleaned up his act in 1989, relapsing with a drink-driving incident in 2003.

I met Glen in August 2011 when he was in London to promote ‘Ghost On The Canvas’, an album intended to be his swansong in light of his condition (he’d go on to release two more – this year’s ‘Adiós’ was his fitting farewell) . His promotional tour, therefore, would likely to be his last opportunity to speak with the press, a brutal fact that was not lost on me as I prepared for our meeting.

Glen was to be the subject of the magazine’s regular feature, Rock And Rules, in which veteran artists look back over the successes and failures of their long careers and pass on nuggets of advice and lessons gleamed from personal experience. Asking Glen to cast his mind back over the years was ultimately a bittersweet experience – while he relished the opportunity to talk about the highlights of his glory years, his memory would often fail him and would stumble mid-sentence. Kim would serve him a reminder, and he’d laugh the situation off like it was a momentary flash of forgetfulness. If there was any glimpse of embarrassment or discomfort then I was not witness to it. Glen carried on regardless, and Kim was his rock.

After our meeting, I was overwhelmed with emotion. It was crushing to see a person crumbling away in front of my eyes. While he was still absolutely present in the moment and our discussions threw up some thrilling revelations, he was quite clearly a shadow of his former self, and as I cried that evening, I felt nothing but respect for the bravery not just of Glen, facing this awful deterioration, but of Kim and his extended family who’d have to suffer this ordeal.

Some time later, I watched I’ll Be Me, the documentary that spanned his diagnosis, the recording of ‘Ghost On The Canvas’ and its subsequent US promotion, and it immediately recalled the overwhelming sadness that consumed me around that time. I had met him when the disease was starting to encroach upon his livelihood and saw the effects it was beginning to have, and so while the news of his passing this week was desperately saddening, it was regrettably not unexpected. My thoughts went out to Kim, his children and all his family and loved ones whose loss is profoundly deeper than the millions of fans around the world that mourn him, and to defiant Glen, who has to fight no more.

Clash is paying tribute to Glen by presenting our interview in full for the first time – a small token of appreciation for the great gifts he gave us.

Rest in peace, Glen.

You came from very humble beginnings. What gave you the ambition to go out and make something of yourself?

GLEN: Because I was in humble beginnings! (Laughs) Dad had a guitar first, and I kinda took it over. All the kids could play it, but I wanted to play guitar. That’s the way that I got started actually. It was something that I really, really liked to do. Boy, I think I’ve been so blessed to do something really from the time I was walking, that I could sing and play. Talking, I should say, not walking. And it was just what I wanted to do. I always carried the guitar with me.

KIM: You always say it was a whole lot better than…

GLEN: That’s right, ploughing! (Laughs) Or looking at the north-end of a southbound mule either! It was a lot easier than that. It was something that you really loved to do, so it doesn’t seem like work. If I go out and do a job, it’s not work for me, I enjoy doing it.

So you never set out to be famous; you did what you did to escape a way of life?

GLEN: Right. Just to play the guitar and sing. I started doing…

KIM: Your first gig was playing…

GLEN: Oh, it was Jimmy Seals and…

KIM: Well, you played for your Uncle Dick Bills…

GLEN: Oh yeah, good god yeah. What’s the matter with me, honey? I’m sorry. Yeah, Dick Bills and the Sandia Mountain Boys. He was my uncle, married to my Aunt Judy, and I went down to Albuquerque, New Mexico, and I got the gig. I fell in and really enjoyed what I was doing, because it was a lot of fun.

KIM: That was like a five-day-a-week radio show, so you would learn new songs – how many songs would you do a day?

GLEN: Gosh, I don’t know. It was a half-hour show. We’d do about 10 or 20, I don’t know.

KIM: He was about 14 or 15-years-old.

Were your parents supportive of you doing that?

GLEN: Oh yeah, definitely. It was another kid that wasn’t around the table! Because there was 12 of us. (Laughs)

Weren’t they worried that the rock and roll lifestyle was too dangerous for you to be leaving home so young?

GLEN: No. I was going to play with them and it was my dad’s sister. They took care of me. Well, rock and roll back then wasn’t what you would call rock and roll, really.

KIM: But you said there were bar fights. You were 14 or 15, working in a bar, and afterwards there would be fights out in the parking lot.

GLEN: Oh yeah, it was the joints that we were playing. But that happens. People go outside and fight.

How did you look after yourself?

GLEN: They weren’t after me! (Laughs) I had my guitar!

KIM: You said you used to go to the gym and you were gonna try out to be Mr. New Mexico. So he was bodybuilding.

GLEN: Oh yeah, I did the bodybuilding thing. I was gonna build it up so I could take care of myself! I wish I had kept it up! But the Dick Bills thing, that was a five-days-a-week radio show. I got up to go to California through a friend of mine; he was a DJ there in Albuquerque. So, I went out with him, and I saw how everything was working there with…. What am I trying to say?

KIM: The music/recording industry out in California.

GLEN: The music industry, that’s right. I saw what they were doing with records and so forth and boy, I really wanted to do that. I played in halls, beer joints…

KIM: But you got a job with Jimmy Bowen, who’s a famous record producer, doing jingles and demos.

GLEN: Jimmy Bowen and I started doing jingles, that was fun, and demos. You played demo sessions and tried to get them cut by a recording artist or heard by publishers.

KIM: Sing him the Lady Clairol.

GLEN: Oh yeah, that was great. It was a jingle – I got to doing some of those. “Is it true blondes have more fun? / Look at her go, oh, look at her go / Singing, ‘Oh Lady Clairol’ / Go Clairol!” It was a lot of fun to be doing something you hadn’t been doing before. But to get to do just really odd things like that was fun. But we played a gig in… What was the name of that club?

KIM: I don’t know. Was this when you were with Seals and Crofts in the band called The Champs?

GLEN: Oh yeah, we did that. We went to New York and around with some… (Laughs)

KIM: You know who Seals and Crofts are? Jimmy Seals and Dash Crofts. They were called The Champs and they had that song ‘Tequila’.

GLEN: God, I can’t even think back that far! (Laughs)

Moving to LA was quite a risk. Would you recommend for people to take a risk in pursuit of their dream?

GLEN: Yeah. It worked for me! I got a job with The Wrecking Crew. We did all kinds of sessions – you name it, we did it. But I got into doing studio work, and that was really, really fun. In fact, I’d like to be doing that all over again!

Was it frustrating that for all that hard work it wouldn’t be your name on the record?

GLEN: No. We were making good money doing….everything!

Working with The Wrecking Crew, you’d be backing so many different and diverse singers. You must have learned a lot from each of them. What were you doing that was so different for each session?

GLEN: I had a capo! (Laughs) They were looking for a real open sound, a ringing sound. It was any kind of music, any kind of thing in the world. I forgot a lot of that stuff. Ask me the question again.

What did you learn from each of the sessions?

GLEN: That was awesome. We had about six, seven, eight guys, and we did all those…

KIM: You played for Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin… Did you learn anything specifically from Frank Sinatra or Elvis Presley?

GLEN: When I started doing that, it was the best musicians that I ever got to play with – the Tommy Tedescos and people like that who could read backwards. It was the highest calibre of musicians. I knew how to use a capo!

KIM: Did you learn anything from Brian Wilson?

GLEN: Sure I did. I taught him how to play electric bass. He sat down and wrote the ‘Pet Sounds’ stuff. Honey, I can’t remember all that stuff. That was a long time ago.

KIM: Well, you always say about Brian Wilson that he was so meticulous and he would stay in there until he got it right.

GLEN: I really enjoyed that, because we would stay in there for half a day.

Would he work you to the bone?

GLEN: Yeah, but he’d get it like he wanted it. The outcome was he had the best music, the best songs… They were great. You look back over the old Beach Boys stuff and it is really great music, and really great players, man.

Do you think you took any of Brian Wilson’s perfectionism into your own work when you went solo?

GLEN: I probably wasn’t as particular about it as he was. (Laughs) I had so much fun through that whole era. We got to play on all the Beach Boys stuff, all the Jan And Dean, and we went to New York with The Monkees. (Laughs) Remember them? I didn’t stay with them very long. But I got to play with all that stuff. It was a learning thing for me. When I really got it through my head that I really gotta get out and play and sing, finally I… Brian was doing something and I went out on a gig with him. I did the, [sings] “The little old lady from Pasadena…” I sang all the high stuff with him, and I played the bass. Wow. Anyway, I thought, ‘I don’t think I want to do much more of that’, that kind of singing.

KIM: You were on the road with them for about a year, right?

GLEN: Yeah, I was. And the money was fabulous, man. I’d have to work in the cotton patch for a year to make that kind of money! (Laughs) It was definitely the happiest time to have a job where you’re doing the thing that you love to do: playing the guitar and singing. That was fabulous. That was the most content time of my life. I just sat back… When we’d come in and do the… All the guys that were doing the sessions, like Carol Kaye – have you heard of her? She was the bass player in The Wrecking Crew, and she was a great player; she blew me away. And the whole thing put together, it was the best sounding and the best feel. Brian really knew what he was doing and what he wanted. He’d sit there for hours and hours – which was great for us because we were getting paid by the hour!

When you started out on your own, most of your biggest hits were written by somebody else. How do you know when a song is right for you, or when you hear a hit song?

GLEN: If I liked it. I was pretty good at guessing at them.

KIM: You always say you like ‘I/Me’ songs.

GLEN: Yeah, ‘I/Me’: I want, I think, I feel, I hurt… Those were the songs I was looking for, songs like ‘Wichita Lineman’.

KIM: Melodies, chord progression and lyrics are super important to you.

GLEN: I would take a song and if I didn’t like a change or something, I would do it the way I wanted to do it. And the guy says, ‘No!’

KIM: If you make a change in the words, you always asked the writer if it was okay that you could do that, and they were always so thrilled that you were rewarding their song that they would say, ‘Yeah, go ahead’.

GLEN: Yeah, I’d change around something I didn’t like. I’d say: ‘This don’t work that right’. So I would change it around to the way I wanted to do it – especially when it was on my stuff! Of course, there was a lot of people that didn’t like… I couldn’t understand it; they wouldn’t want to do something: ‘No no, I don’t want that changed’, even if it wasn’t good or not.

KIM: But that’s one of the things you learned from The Wrecking Crew, that all parts of the song need to be good, not just the chorus…

GLEN: The Wrecking Crew was wonderful, but then we went out with The Beach Boys, and that really a lot of fun. I’d like to do that over again, because that was really a fun time. Doing the studio work was just wonderful, because I got to play with the best musicians I ever played with.

KIM: But as a musician, I think you’re really sensitive to chord progressions…

GLEN: Oh yeah, I learned a lot from the readers especially.

KIM: His music is more sophisticated; like, the Jimmy Webb stuff has got a lot of chord changes.

GLEN: Boy, the songs Jimmy wrote were incredible. They had so many chords: ‘Wichita Lineman’, ‘By The Time I Get To Phoenix’, ‘Galveston’… Jimmy Webb was just a fabulous writer, and that’s who I kinda hung on to for a long time.

Do you feel lucky that you two met and worked so well together?

GLEN: Definitely.

How much do you think luck plays a part in a career?

GLEN: What’s that old phrase I say about luck? I’d rather be lucky than, what? But man, I tell you, that was a time of… The singing, the playing; everything was like growing. I’d like to go back to some of those times and just see what they really looked like. There was some great players! We were doing a session and Tommy Tedesco was playing, and Jimmy Haskell – what a great conductor – was there. Tommy starts playing, [sings notes] but he’d put his music in backwards, or upside down, and he was playing it backwards! Jimmy Haskell looks over and says, ‘What are you doing?’ He said, ‘I’m just playing what’s on the board!’ It was upside down and he was playing it! That really knocked me out. We all got a good laugh out of it too.

Glen Campbell and Jimmy Webb

What impact did your television show have on your career? You went almost stratospheric in America, right?

GLEN: I think I’m probably one of the most blessed men on the continent to fall into things like that. Tommy Smothers put me on The Smothers Brothers Show, and that was just really incredible.

KIM: You always say that you had a couple of albums already recorded, and then when you started the TV show…

GLEN: Bingo! Something that didn’t sell 40 units suddenly went to 400, then 4000, 400,000, 4,000,000… The power of television was just incredible.

KIM: You said Capitol had every record press in America pressing Glen Campbell albums. And all the back albums – not just his latest one – started selling like crazy. And I think you were out of the country when the first show aired, and when you came back and got off the plane, you said everyone in the airport was like, ‘Hi Glen!’ Like they knew who you were.

GLEN: I really knew then the power of television.

What happened to your private life and privacy after that?

GLEN: Oh, you know, you couldn’t go anywhere. But I was the kind of guy who’d sit and talk to a telephone pole if it was there. (Laughs)

KIM: And he still will!

GLEN: I didn’t get to talk much when I was a kid, because there was 12 kids and somebody was always mouthing off.

You were bigger and selling more records than The Beatles in America. But there was four of them going through that fame together – you were on your own. It must have been pretty hard to cope?

GLEN: Oh, but my band was awesome. It’s really nice when you’re in that position, because you can get the musicians you wanted. I was gonna say something then but then I thought, ‘Hell no, I’m gonna say it anyway.’ (Laughs) They had to put up with the drummer, Ringo. Oh my god! You talk about a weak link in a nice chain there. He was the one that thought he was so hot. (Laughs) I shouldn’t be saying that.

I think history speaks for itself on that one.

GLEN: Yeah, I know. Did you ever hear him sing? (Laughs) You know what? Somebody like that, they don’t know that they can’t really play very well. Then there’s some guys that really don’t care if they play well.

KIM: Well it worked out for him!

GLEN: For a while anyway!

You were able to invite musicians and friends to appear on your TV show (guest included Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder). It must have felt good to be able to pass some of that attention on?

GLEN: I’ve been so blessed. Yeah, I could get people on the show that played, that sang, that were good. And then you got guys who’d say, ‘I’ll give you $100 if you can get so-and-so on the show.’ I wouldn’t have anybody on The Goodtime Hour that wasn’t great. They had to be good players and good singers. And boy, I got the best musicians. That was a wonderful time of life. Some of the comedians were just screams. I would get the ones that I thought was funniest to come and do the TV show.

It was around this time you started drinking and taking drugs because of the pressures of fame and the loss of your private life. What do you tell kids now about what you’ve learned from going through that excess?

GLEN: Well, you don’t do drugs, that’s for sure. I don’t remember a whole lot of that stuff, and I’m glad I’m not remembering it. That was probably when it started. Wow, that stuff is bad, bad, bad. I’m glad I got out of it. I could still be like some of the guys that you never heard of again.

KIM: Or dead.

GLEN: But I had sense enough to stop.

KIM: Our kids have a band, Instant People. They’re an indie pop band and they’re gonna open for him when he comes over here and they back him up. He’s always telling them…

GLEN: No drinks!

KIM: …that drinking is just not good. I mean, they like to have a beer or something, but not to do it in excess, and not to do it every single day of your life. Because who knows if you might become addicted to it someday.

Perhaps when you’re famous, you don’t have somebody telling you that you can’t do something, and maybe that’s where the problem lies.

GLEN: That’s very true.

KIM: We would go sit in a restaurant, and this table over here would say, ‘Oh, that’s Glen Campbell. Send him a bottle from us.’ That’s another thing; people are always just giving it to you.

GLEN: Hey, I got through it. That’s wonderful.

Religion played a big part in your recovery. To what do you owe religion?

GLEN: I stopped doing everything. I really feel sorry for guys who get attached to things but they never get rid of them.

KIM: You said you prayed and asked God to help you stop smoking cigarettes…

GLEN: Yes, right. I thank God for all that stuff. Yeah, I quit smoking, I quit drinking, and I quit doing anything like that. And I haven’t had a drink since, man. You’re getting out of a hellhole is what you’re getting out of.

KIM: Well, you did quit for a while, and we started going to church and everything, and then you had a famous relapse…

GLEN: Oh yeah. I wanted to see if it was as bad as I thought it was. (Laughs)

Just testing?

KIM: Yeah, just testing. That’s funny.

GLEN: I don’t know what I was doing. I think I got mad at her or something, I don’t know.

KIM: I think he relapsed because the kids were in high school and we quit taking them out on the road with us, and he would go out and he wanted to be home. Which I think a lot of artists also deal with. He didn’t want to be leaving his family and going to play gigs, so I think he started sneaking around drinking – because he knew I wouldn’t allow it, you know? And also, he was getting anxiety. Maybe it was because he didn’t want to be on the road, or maybe it was because of the onset of Alzheimer’s. We don’t know what caused the anxiety, but he was trying to self-medicate with drinking. It went on for a couple of years, and then finally he got in a drunk-driving accident, and then he hit and run, and then he kicked the cop when he came to arrest him, because he was drunk…

GLEN: (Laughs) Drinking is terrible, I can tell you that. I had to learn basically everything the hard way. I don’t know if it was worth it or not…

KIM: We were glad it happened though, because it straightened him up.

It’s worth it if you straightened up.

GLEN: Yeah. I am so glad, and I thank God that I went through all of that and, you know, I’m not scathed too bad. I asked the Lord to forgive me and that was it.

You wrote an autobiography, and you said you wrote it so you could pass on advice to people who know what you went through. You’ve said that people have thanked you for writing it. What did people say to you about your book?

GLEN: Fans would write and tell me to do this and do that, and they were right. I’m just glad I got through the whole thing alive.

KIM: He had a lot of fans that said they’d been praying for him.

GLEN: That helped me a lot, it really did. But I think her and the kids were the main thing that made me quit anything I was doing – cocaine, beer, whiskey; I stopped the whole shooting match. I fell off the wagon once, and she told me she was gonna take the kids and leave me, and that’s when I quit.

Was writing the book a cathartic process?

GLEN: Oh yeah. Finally I really came around to, ‘Yes, I can hack this, and I can get rid of it’. And thank God I did. When you’re doing cocaine and whiskey and beer and all that garbage, all that’s gonna do is kill you. Every time I’d see somebody like that I’d say, ‘My God, I’m so glad to get out of that’.

KIM: You always said it felt a lot better waking up than coming to.

GLEN: You ain’t kidding! (Laughs) That’s right. It sure is better to wake up than it is to come to, man. I don’t know why people do that. I guess we’re totally free to do what we want to do, and some of us want to do very stupid things. Which I did. I ain’t got no business going out there and snorting cocaine…

KIM: You took that ‘Guess I’m Dumb’ song literally.

GLEN: [Sings] “I guess I’m dumb but I don’t care.” (Laughs)

You’re coming back to the UK to perform sold-out shows. Yours is a long and successful career – how have you managed to last so long and remain so popular?

GLEN: I can still play and sing very well. They like to hear me play, and I really enjoy it. I can go out on stage now a hell of a lot better now than when I was drinking. And now I’m 75.

KIM: He always says he owes a lot to Jimmy Webb for his career.

GLEN: Yeah, definitely. What a great songwriter. And I really like to sing, and I really like to play. I’m so blessed to get through all that garbage. I was turning out to be an alcoholic. You get to drinking, and finally I just cold turkeyed everything. I said, ‘Well, I started it, so I can damn sure get rid of it,’ and that’s what I did.

KIM: I really think the Lord did help him quit, because he didn’t go through any 12-step programmes or Alcoholics Anonymous; he didn’t do any of that.

GLEN: I prayed that I wouldn’t do any more cocaine or whiskey. And you know what? If you ask – it’s in the Bible – ask and you shall receive: seek and you shall find. And I tried that and it actually worked. Because I’m here, 75-years-old, and still want to play the guitar. And I can still play guitar!

If you had to give one piece of advice to somebody who was looking to start a career in music, what would it be?

GLEN: My dad used to say, ‘Whip light, drive slow, pay cash, or don’t go.’ That’s one. But drinking is not good, and cocaine is the worst thing you could possibly do, I think. I tell them, just don’t do that. I cut a chunk out of my life, but hey, the Lord will forgive you if you ask him.

KIM: We’ve known a lot of young kids that are trying to make it in the record business now. We know a young family from Phoenix and they’re a country band, so they moved to Nashville. Our kids are indie pop so they moved to LA, and I think it is important to be where the centre of music is. That’s what he did: he went out to LA and that’s how his career got started. When you move to a city and you start networking, getting to know people, that’s generally how you break in. Alan Jackson, his wife met Glen in an airport and said, ‘Glen, my husband writes and sings and plays real good, and he’s trying to break into the music business. Can you take this CD and listen to it?’ She handed him a CD and it was the song ‘Here In The Real World’, which was his first smash hit. Glen hired him to come work at his publishing company in Nashville and then started helping him get a record deal, and really launched him. Brian Wyatt was another kid we helped in Nashville. So, I do think it’s important they move to the centre of where the music is happening. Just to network and meet people in the business.

GLEN: Who’s my little buddy?

KIM: Keith Urban.

GLEN: You know who he is? Wow. The best guitar player in the world, bar none. He just blew me away. To hear him play, I just laughed. I met him when he was like eight-years-old. He said, ‘Mr. Campbell, I want to be just like you. I’m gonna play and sing.’ I told him what to do.

KIM: He always says that he gave Keith Urban the advice to do calisthenics. In other words, really practice your craft and become the best that you can be at it. Don’t take it lightly; if you’re a guitar player, work on your craft, do your scales, get your speed up, and play lots of different styles of music. That’s what you did, whether it was working for your uncle’s radio station doing a new show every day five days a week – how many songs would that be? At least five or six songs a day you were learning. What a good training field! And then with The Wrecking Crew, so many styles; don’t limit yourself to one style. I think our kids going out with him has been a good training ground for them, because they’ve learned to be responsible on the road, to get on the bus on time, to take care of their gear, to be prepared…

Words: Simon Harper

Glen Campbell and Clash Editor-In-Chief, Simon Harper, 2011.



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