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When Jimmy Webb played a piano/vocal version of “Wichita Lineman” Aug. 24 at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum’s CMA Theater, he gave it a classical tilt, putting an additional complexity on a song that manages to incorporate love, hope and hardship in the toils of a sweaty blue-collar worker.
The performance ended with pulsing, fading notes high on the piano’s keyboard, turning the classic string arrangement in Glen Campbell’s recording into a sort Morse code approximation of Campbell’s spirit. The notes grew increasingly faint, until they drifted ever quietly into the shadows.
Webb’s moving version came among a litany of emotional, personal and funny recollections as a bevy of friends, family and the famous paid tribute to the Country Hall of Fame member in an invitation-only memorial, Remembering Glen Campbell. The event managed to encapsulate the multiple facets of the singer/guitarist: his rural upbringing, his years as a member of Los Angeles’ Wrecking Crew of studio musicians, his time as the host of CBS’ The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour, his spirituality, his devotion to family and, of course, the battery of recordings that made him a singular personality for nearly 50 years.
Brad Paisley, with the nylon strings of his acoustic guitar ringing in full-bodied richness, weaved together several of those songs — “Country Boy (You Got Your Feet In L.A.),” “Southern Nights” and “Rhinestone Cowboy” — but he paid particular homage to the sound that would set Campbell apart in a genre that takes pride in its dedication to three chords and the truth. Webb and Campbell, he mused, brought the world “23 chords and the truth.”
“We both loved chords,” Webb would later agree. He marveled that he could play dense, complicated “super-chords” on a piano, and that Campbell — who, it should be noted, could not read music — managed to replicate those sounds on his instrument.
“Somehow or other,” said Webb, “Glen and I managed to put that guitar and piano together.”
The legacy of Campbell’s guitar and his enviable vocal work were well represented during the two-hour reminiscence. Mike Love and Bruce Johnston led a current version of The Beach Boys in “I Get Around,” one of numerous titles that Campbell played on as studio musician, a role that would see him record with such icons as Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Elvis Presley.
Steve Wariner, wearing a plum sport jacket that Campbell gifted him two decades ago, applied an airy tone to Campbell’s first hit, “Gentle On My Mind,” joined by guitarist Mac McAnally and banjo player Carl Jackson, who toured as a member of Campbell’s backing band for 12 years. “I wanted to play, sing and comb my hair like Glen,” Wariner said.
Jackson chided Campbell’s ‘do as “a hair style with a sun roof.”
Christian artist Steven Curtis Chapman, who spent parts of his youth attempting to mimic Campbell’s playing, sang “I Will Be Here” with an easy, graceful phrasing and blue-eyed tone that favored Campbell. The song represented the late singer’s spirituality.
And songwriter/producer Julian Raymond sang a sensitive, haunting version of “I’m Not Gonna Miss You,” a Grammy-winning, Oscar-nominated song he wrote with Campbell for Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me, a documentary that captured the singer’s final tour. That series of dates found Alzheimer’s gradually claiming Campbell’s grasp of the lyrics in his own songs. The harsh truths of “I’m Not Gonna Miss You” brought a standing ovation, but they also represented an important part of Campbell’s impact. His willingness to lay bare his battle with a disease that scrapes at human frailty was widely considered a display of great character.
The movie’s director, James Keach, noted that numerous fans have had their lives changed by Campbell’s bravery. One woman, in particular, told Keach that the film’s honesty helped her regain a sense of self: “I have Alzheimer’s, and I am no longer ashamed.”
Campbell’s memory loss slowly removed the complexity from his understanding of the world, but he left those thick chords, deft guitar lines and effortless vocals on a bundle of songs that helped pop and country music reflect the range of emotions in human experience: melancholy in “By The Time I Get to Phoenix,” gratitude in “A Lady Like You,” unbridled joy in “Sunflower.”
Host Jane Seymour recalled Campbell’s assessment of all those feelings: “I’ve cried and I have laughed. Laughin’ is a hell of a lot better.”
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