Music Video Weekend: Glen Campbell, “Wichita Lineman”

This is one of the greatest songs ever written. Seriously. Sometimes I even get a physical reaction, goosebumps, when I hear it. Written by Jimmy Webb, “Wichita Lineman” was most famously recorded by Glen Campbell in 1968, when it reached #3 on the charts. Across forty-plus years, this sturdy song has been durable enough to accommodate a hilarious range of artists, including: Ken Berry, The Lettermen, Tom Jones, The Scud Mountain Boys, Peter Nero, Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66, Cassandra Wilson, Gomez, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Celtic Thunder, Johnny Cash, The Meters, Ray Charles, The White Stripes, “Tennessee” Ernie Ford, Urge Overkill, James Taylor, and many more.

Dylan Jones, editor of GQ UK and author of iPod, Therefore I Am, even went so far as to call it “the first existential country song,” and that’s an entertaining observation. I’m eager to read his book (but it’s going to have to get on line, like everybody else).

Here’s the criminally underrated Glen Campbell — who happens to be a masterful guitarist, by the way — supported by members of The Stone Temple Pilots. It’s nice to hear Glen without the syrupy strings and overall cheese associated with his early hits, getting back to the strength at the song’s rock-solid core. Really, it’s a perfect song. Quibble: I intensely dislike the last line tagged on in this performance, “and I’m doing fine,” a misguided moment of pure cornball that almost ruins the whole shebang. Maybe that’s been Campbell’s Achilles heel all along, he’s got a nice head of hair but  has to spray Mennon (“The Dry Look”) over the whole damn thing. He really should leave well enough alone, because Campbell is a huge talent.

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I saw Freedy Johnston cover “Wichita” live back in the 80′s, and that’s when I first heard the song in a whole new light. It was a revelation. Play the song again, feel that ache. Read those lyrics. Reread them and reread them again. So much said in so few words.

I am a lineman for the county
And I drive the main road
Searchin’ in the sun for another overload.

I hear you singing in the wire
I can hear you through the whine
And the Wichita Lineman is still on the line

Photo: Wayne Norton © 2006.

I know I need a small vacation
But it don’t look like rain
And if it snows that stretch
Down South won’t ever stand the strain

And I need you more than want you
And I want you for all time
And the Wichita Lineman is still on the line

Here’s REM covering it in 1994. Somebody needs to wake up Michael Stipe, but Peter Buck is always cool, and this song lends itself well to his talents:

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And while we’re documenting this, let’s not forget the song’s creator, Jimmy Webb (not an accomplished vocalist: understatement), doing a piano-based version. I don’t mean to take a swipe at one of Oklahoma’s celebrated sons, I like Jimmy Webb’s reading of the song, high notes and perfect pitch be damned:

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Since we’re documenting here, I might as well throw in this solo guitar version of the song, played by some nameless nobody on Youtube — and played beautifully.

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4 comments

  1. Liz S says:

    I’m glad to be reminded of this one. Having grown up with GC’s VERY cornball variety hour, I blew him off and haven’t revisited. This song is amazing… Wish I’d heard Freedy’s cover….

  2. Jimmy says:

    Liz, you’re in luck. He’s got two versions available on iTunes, however, neither quite rock like the live performance I remember. He did a studio version for the “Unlucky” CD which is very nice. There’s also a live version, not with a full band (I don’t think), that I’m less familiar with.

    If you don’t “do” iTunes, let me know and I’ll burn it for you, baby.

  3. Liz S. says:

    Thanks, JP. I do iTunes, and will look this up. This song (GC version) has been in my head all day, pushing The Carpenters’ “There’s No Place Like Home for the Holidays” right to the curb.

  4. anna says:

    james Taylor does a really nice cover of this too…

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