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Jimmy Webb Celebrates Friend, Muse Glen Campbell

John Feder

Jimmy Webb will perform an evening of music that finds him focusing on his relationship with musician Glen Campbell at the McPherson Opera House on Friday, April 26.

Titled Jimmy Webb: The Glen Campbell Years, the show finds the Oklahoma native performing hits such as "Galveston," "By The Time I Get To Phoenix" and "Wichita Lineman," all of which Campbell had chart success with. In addition, Webb has assembled a series of photos as well as video and audio clips of himself and Campbell.

Webb is also preparing to release a new album on May 19 titled SlipCover. It's a solo piano release that finds him performing songs by a variety of composers he admires, including Billy Joel and Warren Zevon.

Interview Highlights

How did you first become acquainted with Glen Campbell?

When I was 14 and doing a lot of agricultural labor in the panhandle of Oklahoma, out there in the flat country — which you know probably pretty well — I heard this song [while I was] astride my International Harvester tractor one day. The song was "Turn Around, Look At Me." It was by a young singer I wasn't familiar with, and I quickly became aware of Glen Campbell at that tender age.

One of the things I decided was that I wanted that guy to record my songs. That was the guy I wanted. I was just beginning to write songs, but for many years, I used "Turn Around, Look At Me" and Glen Campbell as a standard for what would be a great song.

The first time we met was when I was about 19 or 20 in 1967. We both won Grammy awards that year. He won with "By The Time I Get To Phoenix" for Best Male Vocal Performance, and I won Song of the Year with "Up, Up and Away." We were backstage with all the hubbub going on: the cameras, the flashing. Someone said, "Hey, Glen! Let's get a picture with Jimmy!" I shook his hand, the flash went off and then there was a picture. That was the first time I ever physically touched the guy. I didn't know him then, had never had a conversation with him. I'd heard him sing my songs on the radio, which was kind of a prayer that came true.

It was a while before we knew each other well enough to have a conversation. We were different people. I was more of a hippy. I'd been to the Monterey Pop Festival. I wore bandanas and yak vests, moccasins, old blue jeans. I was hanging out with a bunch of guys from Topanga Canyon, not paying much attention to my personal appearance. Glen was always turned out like a country and western Ken doll. His hair was perfect; he was in these tight-fitted white jeans. He always had a beautiful rodeo belt buckle on. That's the way I remember him, the Glen that everybody saw on TV.

He was from Arkansas, you were from Oklahoma. Was that part of the kinship you felt with him, though? Here's this guy who gets life out here?

I think so. I was born 11 miles from Erick, Oklahoma, where Roger Miller was born on old Route 66. Glen was, as you know, very, very tight with Roger Miller. Glen came from a little town called Delight [Arkansas], which was one of those one-traffic-lamp towns, like the ones I grew up in. If it had more than one traffic signal, it was a city. [Laughs.]

I spent a lot of my youth in West Texas, which was sort of like the badlands. There wasn't a lot going on in West Texas from an architectural point of view. There weren't a lot of buildings. My dad moved the family every couple of years. He was a Baptist minister. We were always the new kids: We were getting to know people, or we were saying goodbye. That affected me a lot when I was a kid. It probably had something to do with me becoming a songwriter.

I was always kind of in my own world. Not to put too strong a point on it, but sort of pushed to the outside of the social scene. You couldn't move into a new school and immediately be a part of what was going on. In order to survive, I created my own little world where I played the piano. I made up songs for girls that were unreachable from my lowly position as the preacher's kid.

I can remember being a pariah of sorts because my father was the minister. A lot of assumptions were made about me that I felt were unfair. But the upside of being a preacher's son was that it brought me into intimate contact with music from a very, very early age. My mother's dream was for me to be a church pianist. Not to be pejorative, but in these little one-horse towns that were a pretty important job.

Glen covered a number of your songs, including "Wichita Lineman." There is this debate among fans as to whether the song's about Wichita, Kansas, or Wichita Falls, Texas.

In my mind, it's about Wichita, Kansas. I was living in Laverne, Oklahoma. Laverne is a pitch and a throw from Wichita. It's about flat country. If you listen to the song, it's clearly about flat land. It's about long vistas, lines of telephone poles receding into the distance and getting smaller and smaller. It's about the loneliness of the line worker.

That song has endured. When we're creating something, we don't know what the life of it is going to be. How has it felt for that song to endure and become a part of the culture the way that it has?

Certainly, something that I never expected because I think that myself, my generation, my peers — Harry Nilsson and I, Steven Bishop and Paul Williams, some of the guys we hung out with and wrote with from time to time — we sort of thought we were writing discardable music. It was our predecessors — Harold Arlen, Yip Harburg, Sammy Kahn, Burt Bacharach and Hal David — they had a shot at immortality. But I don't think any of us took very seriously the idea that our songs would be around for longer than 10 years, maybe 20 at the most. They just didn't seem as important as the songs of the Great American Songbook.

I've revised that viewpoint. I have a new album coming out, called SlipCover and what I'm trying to do with that album is show how beautiful the melodies of the '60s and '70s really were. There were real composers: Billy Joel, Randy Newman, Paul McCartney, Brian Wilson, Stevie Wonder. They were real composers writing real music.

It surprised us all that it's been embraced and treasured by this whole generation. Some of these songs really have achieved some longevity. I think many of us were lucky to live as long as our songs. [Laughs.] To be in my early 70s and to hear my songs still being played on the radio is quite enough for me. It's a thrill. To hear Seriously Sinatra on XM, and he's singing one of my songs? That's a seriously sobering experience. How did I get here? [Laughs.]

Jedd Beaudoin is the host of Strange Currency. Follow him on Twitter @JeddBeaudoin. To contact KMUW News or to send in a news tip, reach us at news@kmuw.org.

Jedd Beaudoin is host/producer of the nationally syndicated program Strange Currency. He has also served as an arts reporter, a producer of A Musical Life and a founding member of the KMUW Movie Club. As a music journalist, his work has appeared in Pop Matters, Vox, No Depression and Keyboard Magazine.