The story behind Glen Campbell's version of the song Wichita Lineman

by Karl du Fresne / 27 July, 2016
The story behind the haunting Wichita Lineman and its creators is charted in an extract from A Road Tour of American Song Titles.

Illustration/Weef Singer Glen Campbell. Illustration/Weef

Wichita, Kansas, is the home of Pizza Hut, Cessna aircraft and the fictional lineman from a Jimmy Webb song. Webb wrote Wichita Lineman in response to a request from Glen Campbell who, having done well with By the Time I Get to Phoenix, thought that Webb might be able to work his magic again. Campbell told me in 2006: “After Phoenix I said to Jimmy, ‘Do me another song that makes me long for home.’” It was the second of the three Webb songs that were hits for Campbell (Galveston was the third), but the only one that Webb wrote specifically for the singer.

Webb hadn’t met Campbell at that point, but told the San Jose Mercury News in 2011 that he got a phone call from him. Campbell wanted Webb to write “another town song”. The composer wasn’t entirely sure what Campbell meant, but figured out, correctly, that he wanted another song with a geographical reference point as its hook. Webb began writing it that afternoon and sent it off to Campbell before it was completed, expecting to hear back if the singer thought the song was worth finishing. He had yet to write a middle section.

Hearing nothing back, he assumed Campbell didn’t like it. When the two next talked, Webb said: “Well, I guess you didn’t like that song I sent you.” He was startled by Campbell’s reply: “Oh no, we already recorded that.” “But it wasn’t finished,” Webb protested. “Well, it is now,” said Campbell. (In fact it wasn’t, but it was waiting only for the finishing touches to be applied in the studio.)

Wichita Lineman is an evocative song about a phone company employee who patrols the lonely roads of the Kansas prairies, checking for faults in the overhead lines. Even as he’s scanning the wires he’s pre­occupied with thoughts about the woman he loves. It’s a short, spare song, but masterful in its simple lyricism.

Needless to say, it’s beautifully rendered. Campbell sings without artifice or affectation, and always as if he has lived whatever the song is about (which may be true, given his sometimes turbulent life). In Wichita Lineman, he conveys a sense of loneliness and yearning. Honey Come Back, another Webb song recorded by Campbell in 1970, has him sounding heartbroken at the breakup of a love affair; you get the feeling he knows exactly what he’s singing about. He even manages to make Dreams of the Everyday Housewife – a minor 1968 hit that disappeared from most radio station playlists after the rise of feminism rendered its sentiments unfashionable – sound sincere and plausible.

Singer Glen Campbell. Photo/Getty Images Singer Glen Campbell. Photo/Getty Images

Webb told the Songfacts website in an interview that Wichita Lineman was inspired by something he had once seen while driving through his home state of Oklahoma. “I have a very specific image of a guy I saw working up on the wires out in the Oklahoma panhandle one time with a telephone in his hand, talking to somebody, and this exquisite aesthetic balance of all these telephone poles just decreasing in size as they got further and further away from the viewer, that being me. And as I passed him, he began to diminish in size.

“The country is so flat, it was like this one quick snapshot of this guy rigged up on a pole with this telephone in his hand. And this song came about, really, from wondering what that was like, what it would be like to be working up on a telephone pole and what would you be talking about. Was he talking to his girlfriend? Probably just doing one of those checks where they called up and said, ‘Mile marker 46,’ you know. ‘Everything’s working so far.’”

Webb says Campbell’s voice was perfectly suited to his songs. In the case of Phoenix and Wichita Lineman, there was a kind of “surreal fit” between the singer and the song. But singing wasn’t all that Campbell did on Wichita Lineman. Borrowing studio bass player Carol Kaye’s Danelectro bass guitar – an instrument with a distinctive tone, not as deep as a conventional electric bass – he played a twangy solo where Webb’s middle section had been meant to go.

Kaye, meanwhile, contributed a clever idea of her own. Concerned that the song had a rather limp opening, she suggested kicking it off with a simple, six-note intro on the bass. (Kaye, a veteran LA session musician, like Campbell himself, had come up with a similarly inspired idea two years earlier for Sonny and Cher’s The Beat Goes On. Just when the recording session was getting bogged down and the musicians were losing interest because of the monotony of the one-chord song, Kaye came up with a simple, pounding bass pattern that breathed new life into it. The Beat Goes On subsequently became a Top 10 hit.)

Not to be left out, Webb came up with his own contribution to the signature sound of Wichita Lineman. Using a vintage Gulbransen church organ that he owned, Webb played a one-note, Morse code-like pattern that simulated the sound of signals passing along telephone lines. The finishing touches were provided by producer and arranger Al de Lory, who wrote an arrangement in which the strings mimicked the sighing of the wires.

Wichita Lineman went to No 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 and No 1 on the US country chart in November 1968. In New Zealand it peaked at No 10. But like By the Time I Get to Phoenix, the song continued to have a life long after it slipped off the charts. Billy Joel – like Webb, a great crafter of intelligent, melodic pop songs – called it a simple song about an ordinary man thinking extraordinary thoughts. Rolling Stone magazine, not noted for its fondness for middle-of-the-road singers like Campbell, ranked it #192 on its 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

It was on a lonely Kansas highway such as this that songwriter Jimmy Webb pictured a solitary linesman searching in the sun for an overload. Photo/Karl du Fresne It was on a lonely Kansas highway such as this that songwriter Jimmy Webb pictured a solitary linesman searching in the sun for an overload. Photo/Karl du Fresne

Campbell, then in his seventies, told me in 2006 that he still sang Wichita Lineman with genuine emotion. “I think it’s as good a chord progression and melody as I’ve ever seen. I’m so glad that I had hits with songs that I like,” he said, “because I know a lot of guys who say, ‘If I have to sing that song one more time I’m getting out of the business.’ That’s so stupid.”

In fact, years after Wichita, Campbell fell out with his record label, Capitol, because the company bosses had different ideas about the type of song he should be recording. Capitol refused to release Campbell’s version of Webb’s Highwayman as a single, decreeing that it wasn’t commercial. “They wanted me to do something like My Sharona [a hit by pop group the Knack]. I said, ‘Go to hell.’”

At that point Campbell decided he had had enough of Los Angeles and moved to Phoenix. Highwayman was eventually recorded by old friends Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Kristofferson, using the group name the Highwaymen. The record used a musical arrangement conceived by Campbell and became a Grammy Award-winning No 1 country hit. Campbell told me that the men who ran Capitol “wouldn’t know a commercial song if it hit them on the side of the head”.

He and Webb became longstanding friends. In fact only days before I met Campbell in Wellington, the two had performed together at Pepperdine University in Malibu. Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, of which Campbell is a former member, was there too. “That was fun,” Campbell said.

LS3016_b&c_American-song-titlesSadly, in 2011 Campbell announced he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. It didn’t surprise me. Watching him in concert five years earlier, I had commented to my daughter that I thought something was wrong. His performance was flawless but there was something not right about his patter between songs. He kept repeating himself.

I noticed the same thing when I interviewed him in his hotel. Campbell was impeccably polite and obliging, especially considering that the review of his concert in the paper that morning had been gratuitously insulting about the performance of his daughter Debby, who sang with him. However, he seemed a little absent-minded. His long-term memory was fine, but he repeatedly asked me if I’d like some grapes from the bowl on the table. Courteous as he was, I didn’t think it was simply a case of good manners; he seemed to have forgotten that he’d asked me the same thing only a couple of minutes before. Campbell performed live for the last time in November 2012.

A ROAD TOUR OF AMERICAN SONG TITLES: FROM MENDOCINO TO MEMPHIS, by Karl du Fresne (Bateman, $39.99)

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