It is, perhaps, unsurprising that a genre of music as broad as country and western should be dismissed by as many people as it often seems to be. After all, there is an awful lot of stars & stripe-toting, “you’ll prise my gun from my cold, dead hands” espousing glop out there, and this can make it easy to mock. However, from the slickly polished – and, might I add, devilishly witty – likes of Dolly Parton at one end its spectrum to the troubled likes of Gram Parsons at the other, country music is a stylistically broad church, with an influence that continues to brush against the popular music mainstream to this day in a multitude of different ways. That it does so should hardly be surprising to us, because when country music hits its heights, it soars.
“Wichita Lineman” has famously been described as “the first existential country song.” It’s a story, of sorts, of the longing of a lineman – a telephone line engineer – who the song’s writer Jimmy Webb described as “the picture of loneliness”, to be with his love, but this is no story in a conventional sense. Meanwhile, the violins and keyboards and guitar of the orchestra on the original recording of the song mimic these interference sounds that these lines produced. Webb, by the way, was an example of the extraordinary precocity that music can occasionally throw up. He was just twenty-one years old when he wrote this song, displaying a maturity and wisdom considerably beyond his years.
Glen Campbell, meanwhile, was already part of the soundtrack of the United States of America by the time he came to record this song. As a member of The Wrecking Crew, a group of session musicians who provided the arrangements to countless songs and films scores throughout the decade, his signature was already, albeit anonymously, written across the era. With a handful of solo hit singles already under his belt, however, it was his pairing with Jimmy Webb that took his music to another level. “Wichita Lineman” is played to a sparse musical backing, drums brushing like tumbleweed rolling across an empty highway and with the distinctive twang of a Danelectro six-string bass – played by Campbell himself on the original recording – pulsing over the top of it. When released as a single, the song went to the number three position in the Bilboard Hot 100 in America and reached the number seven spot in the UK charts.
Amid such fragility, it is hardly surprising that we should find possibly the finest single lyric in the history of popular music, a line so understatedly perfect that the first time I heard it I had to rewind it to confirm that I’d actually caught it properly the first time around:
And I need you more than want you,
And I want you for all time
For a split second, you consider that perhaps this isn’t a song of romance at all, that this anonymous lineman’s relationship is one borne of necessity than of any great emotional feeling, but then the second line hits you like a punch to the stomach. It is, in my humble opinion, the single most beautiful song lyric ever written, simple yet beautifully phrased, or to put it another way, as the singer and songwriter Billy Joel did some years later, “a simple song about an ordinary man thinking extraordinary thoughts.” And it’s in this simplicity that “Wichita Lineman” finds its voice. There is no beginning, middle or end to the story of the lineman. He doesn’t get home to the love of his life. For all we know, he’s still searching in the sun for another overload.
Glen Campbell himself succumbed to Alzheimers disease a couple of years of years ago, and its likely that “See You There”, the album of reworkings of his best-known songs that was released during the summer, will prove to be his last recordings. These re-recording albums that seem to be so commonplace can be hit and miss affairs, but “See You There” is a series of raw, touching reimaginations of his earlier works and is more than worth your money. But when his time comes, he will be able to sleep easy with the knowledge that he and Jimmy Webb gave us a song for the ages which cuts to the bone, without even saying so, of what it means to be simultaneously alone and in love. Four and a half decades after its release, it all rings as true as it ever did – the Wichita lineman really is still on the line.
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