To honor the memory of the late, great superstar singer and guitarist Glen Campbell, his chief Grammy-winning songwriter Jimmy Webb, and his youngest banjo-strumming rising country star daughter Ashley Campbell will be appearing together at Smothers theatre on the campus of Pepperdine University in Malibu on Saturday, Sept. 22.
In June of 2011, Glen announced that he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease six months earlier and decided to go on a farewell tour to say goodbye to all of his adoring fans. This first stop on the tour was at Club Nokia in Los Angeles in October and included in the band three of his children, all in their 20s at the time: Ashley (now 31) on banjo, keyboards and vocals, Shannon on guitar, and Cal on drums. At times during the concert, Glen struggled with remembering words and got frustrated, but Ashley helped to keep him focused, centered and balanced throughout the performance.
Glen died in Nashville last year on Aug. 8 at the age of 81 and was buried in the Campbell family cemetery in Billstown, Arkansas.
Glen, who got his start as an important member of the famous session group called the “Wrecking Crew,” made his greatest artistic contribution as the principal interpreter of songs by Webb, notably “Wichita Lineman,” “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” and “Galveston,” all recorded in the late 1960s. The clarity of Glen’s enunciation and the sweetness of his tenor voice brought out the poetry and emotion of the compositions.
“Wichita Lineman” was written in response to a phone call from Glen for a “place” or “geographical” song to follow up “By the Time I Get to Phoenix.” Webb’s inspiration for the lyrics came while driving through Washita County in rural southwestern Oklahoma. At that time, many telephone companies were county-owned utilities, and their linemen were county employees. Heading westward on a straight road into the setting sun, Webb drove past a seemingly endless line of telephone poles.
Then, in the distance, he noticed the silhouette of a solitary lineman atop a pole. He described it as “the picture of loneliness.” Webb then “put himself atop that pole and put that phone in his hand” as he considered what the lineman was saying into the receiver.
“It was a splendidly vivid, cinematic image that lifted out of my deep memory while I was writing this song,” Webb said. “I thought, I wonder if I can write something about that? A blue-collar, everyman guy we all see everywhere – working on the railroad or working on the telephone wires or digging holes in the street. I just tried to take an ordinary guy and open him up and say, ‘Look there’s this great soul, and there’s this great aching, and his great loneliness inside this person and we’re all like that. We all have this capacity for these feelings.”
Webb was originally discovered by producer and singer Johnny Rivers, another living legend in the music business, around 1966. Rivers signed him to a publishing deal and recorded his song “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” on his album “Changes.” Rivers then gave the song to Glen who turned it into a huge hit and ignited the flame that lit up the path that Glen would eventually take with Webb. Rivers was also the one responsible for the “Fifth Dimension” recording “Up, Up and Away” which was the song that started it all for Webb on the charts.
Webb also wrote “MacArthur Park,” a song that was originally sung by Irish actor Richard Harris but made famous by Donna Summer’s disco arrangement in 1978.
Growing up, Ashley Campbell’s dad encouraged her to sing and play the piano. She did both, adding acoustic guitar to the mix once she hit high school. A theater kid, she also landed roles in local musicals, eventually heading to college as a theater major. When a director cast her in a role that required her to learn the banjo, she fell in love with the instrument.
When Glen retired after his farewell tour in 2012, Ashley was ready to make her introduction not only as a sideman, but as a solo artist in her own right. While living in Nashville, she wrote a song, “Remembering,” a moving tribute to her dad that doubled as the first single of her career. She’s doing her best to carve out her own sound while being the recipient of some precious Glen Campbell genetics.
Ashley feels honored to be teaming up with Webb as they play her father’s hits and some of her own music from her debut album, “The Lonely One,” from her own Whistle Stop Records label.
The concert will be a bittersweet occasion for both Webb and Ashley, but they are happy to carry the torch for their beloved Glen and keep his music and spirit alive.
Steven LIeberman is a veteran sports/arts/entertainment journalist. Lieberman has covered entertainment and professional sports, Including the NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball, for the past 14 years. Among his entertainment work, Lieberman covers concerts, theatre and events.