Friday, December 23, 2011

December 23: Glen Campbell, "Wichita Lineman"

Artist: Glen Campbell
Song: "Wichita Lineman"
Album: Wichita Lineman
Year: 1968

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Though it is a completely inaccurate statement, many of today's music critics attempt to convince "the masses" that the idea of a "crossover" artist is a recent trend within the world of music.  That is to say, perhaps due to sheer lack of knowledge, many people are led to believe that in previous decades, performers found a single, strict genre identification, and they stuck with this throughout their career.  When one considers the world of country music, this idea is often given even more credit, and yet the reality is that just like any other style of music, country has had a long history of artists working within other genres.  In fact, one of the most highly revered and respected names in the world of country music can be seen as having far more "pop" tendencies than a majority of his peers, and yet there are few performers from the style as important as the catalog of Glen Campbell.  For more than half a century, Campbell has been making one of the most distinctive brands of country-western music one can find, and it is the smooth soulful nature of many of his songs which have turned them into unforgettable classics.  Due to both his longevity within the world of music, as well as the fact that he has such exceptional talents, it is difficult to single out just one of his songs, and yet there are few recordings in history that are as truly perfect as what one can experience on Glen Campbell's 1968 classic, "Wichita Lineman."

As the opening string arrangement gives way to the musical structure that dominates a majority of the song, it is quickly clear that "Wichita Lineman" does not abide by the rules of the "normal" sound of country music.  Though there is certainly a certain feel to the song that suggests this style of music, one can easily make the case that the song is far more pop-oriented than the sounds that were coming from the world of country music at the time.  In many ways, "Wichita Lineman" represents the pinnacle of the balance between these two styles, and to this day, there has never been another recording that comes remotely close in terms of injecting a "mass appeal" tone within the confines of the country sound.  It is the way that the guitars from Al Casey and James Burton seem to almost "knock" back and forth that keeps "Wichita Lineman" firmly rooted within the world of country, and yet it is the more melodic, almost strangely smooth tone with which they play that simultaneously make it as "un-country" as one can find anywhere.  The light drumming from Jim Gordon helps to emphasize the almost delicate nature of the music, and it is this fragile sense which pushes the song further into a category all its own.  There is also an amazing amount of depth that comes from the strings and keyboards found throughout, and the overall sonic presence on "Wichita Lineman" simply defies description.

Working perfectly alongside this superb musical arrangement, the vocals from Glen Campbell manage to similarly straddle the line between genres.  While there is certainly the "country twang" present within his voice, it is far more subtle than one would expect, and this in itself certainly played a large part in "Wichita Lineman" finding a wider audience.  It is also the fact that Campbell can so effortlessly work all across the vocal scale that makes the song so impressive, and the emotion with which he delivers every word must be experienced firsthand to be properly appreciated.  There is no question that "Wichita Lineman" represents Campbell's finest vocal moment, and countless later performers attempted (and failed) to mimic his style.  Yet it is the fact that Campbell was singing such powerful words which vaulted his performance to an even higher place, and few can argue that "Wichita Lineman" is not the most moving piece ever penned by Jimmy Webb.  Though he has written many other classics, "Wichita Lineman" holds a very special place, as the heartbreak and pain one can feel throughout the song feels somehow different, and the imagery of the weather and solitude of the protagonist remains one of the most vivid moments in all of music history.  One is quickly taken to the top of the telephone pole, and one can interpret the lyrics on in few different ways, yet none of them lack a punch that cannot be found anywhere else in recorded music.

Almost instantly upon its release, Glen Campbell's version of "Wichita Lineman" shot to the top of the charts in both the country and "adult contemporary," as well as cracking the top five on the overall chart rankings.  The fact that the same song occupied both of these places proved the fact that there was some element within "Wichita Lineman" that had a boundless appeal and intrigue.  As the decades passed, everyone from Johnny Cash to James Taylor to R.E.M. have recorded their own versions of "Wichita Lineman," and while many have been good, none have been able to capture the same overall tone found on Campbell's recording.  It is the almost overwhelming level of emptiness that one can feel, and the way that the strange sense of hope runs throughout the song, and many have referred to "Wichita Lineman" as the first "existential" country song due to the somewhat abstract way that one can interpret the lyrics.  Regardless of how one hears these words, the fact of the matter remains that the overall construction in every area on "Wichita Lineman" is absolutely flawless, and it can still easily hold its own against music from any current genre.  There is a purity and innocence that can be felt within the amazing vocals, and the way that this is complimented by the soft, almost unassuming music is what enables Glen Campbell's 1968 recording of "Wichita Lineman" to stand today as one of the finest pop songs ever captured on tape.

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