Glen Campbell Made Me A Professional Guitar Player
We reached out to Matt Sweeney Wednesday afternoon after seeing him effusively praise Glen Campbell in a series of tweets following the legendary musician's death on Tuesday. Instead of the normal (and necessary) back-and-forth required of publishing any good piece of writing, Sweeney responded with this essay, practically gift-wrapped, about Campbell's profound influence on his life.
My parents' house was filled with old books and records of bagpipe bands and John Phillip Sousa marches. The TV was a box that held people from the past, or other far-flung dimensions. An album, called The Astounding 12-String Guitar Of Glen Campbell, sat in the living room, like proof that a perfect world once existed. I remember it sounded clean and felt old-fashioned, while outside the house was scary chaos, neighborhoods on fire and rock 'n' roll. In 1974, I was five years old and thought Glen Campbell and Johnny Cash were guys who made records during the time of cowboys and Indians [Ed note: Coincidentally, the magazine Cowboys and Indians recently posted a remembrance of Campbell.] and the Civil War, and seeing them on TV re-enforced this. They looked and sounded so different than the long-haired men in bell bottoms I saw on line at the movies in New Jersey.
In 1975, I heard a song called "Rhinestone Cowboy" on the radio and it made me so happy I could barely stand it. I think it's the first time I ever asked my Mother who was playing on the radio. "That's Glen Campbell, honey." Done deal. This guy played an astounding 12-string guitar, and was a heroic figure in a strange and s***** '70s world.
Around 11 years old, for the usual dumb reasons, I got into playing rock guitar. Then, at 14, I got into arty, weird punk rock via Thrasher magazine. Through all this Glen Campbell remained, to me, a nice childhood memory of an impossible, sweet, '70s-style paragon of manhood and perfection.
I didn't re-examine him or his music until my freshman year of college, when I saw Urge Overkill play a cover of "Wichita Lineman" at the Metro in Chicago. It spurred me to buy a used copy of his greatest hits; after that I couldn't stop listening to his original version. I was stunned by the power of the restraint of his lead guitar at the end of the song. After singing his ass off, his guitar still said what couldn't be sung, just by playing the melody, laid back and minimal. No "shredding."
Around this time, I found out he was a "session" guitar player who played on lots of records before he became known as a singer. Knowing that changed my idea of what, and who, a guitar player could be. Glen Campbell, a huge '70s star, was also anonymously heard and felt on all sorts of songs.
I thought that was f****** cool.
A few years later, my friend Johan Kugelberg got me and my friend Clay Tarver tickets to a "Songs Of Jimmy Webb" concert at Lincoln Center. Turns out Glen Campbell was a guest performer, singing "MacArthur Park." I had never seen anyone sing so good — then, during the wild instrumental break, he strolled over and picked up a guitar and, picking up where his voice had left off, he proceeded to play with such purposeful command and authority it knocked the wind out of me. Just seeing how he held the guitar changed everything for me. The definition of "badass." And not "rock guitar."
(While it was Glen Campbell's restraint on guitar that inspired me, he could shred like NOBODY'S business and make it look cool and natural. Check him and his great friend Jerry Reed melting faces and laughing.)
Clay and I then made good, arty rock records in a band we called Chavez. We tried to make "rock" guitar sound cool and I think we did okay at that. Then Clay started getting paid to be screenwriter and had to move to L.A.
I, careerless, worked a day job promoting bands I liked, still listening to Glen Campbell and other untouchably great non-"rock" guitarists — like John Fahey, Fred McDowell, Junior Kimbrough, Bert Jansch, Michael Hurley — while trying to learn how to play some things I didn't think I could learn to play.
Will Oldham [Ed. note: You may know this person as Bonnie 'Prince' Billy] was a friend of my roommate and heard me dicking around on an acoustic guitar in a Bowery loft, said "that sounds good" and asked if I wanted to play guitar on a recording with him. Around the same time, Chan Marshall [Ed. note: You may know this person as Cat Power] asked me to play a on a song with her because I could (sorta) fingerpick a version of a Mississippi John Hurt song called "Salty Dog."
Somehow, by this point I didn't have time for a day job, because I kept being asked to play guitar. I kept a Glen Campbell guitar mindset and played and sang an Iron Maiden song for a movie.
A little while later, Will and I ended up writing an album together called Superwolf. We listened to the Glen Campbell/Jimmy Webb album Reunion a lot around the time of making it. Rick Rubin ended up liking Superwolf enough to track me down to ask me to play guitar on records he was producing, the first of which was Johnny Cash's American V. (If I were an editor, I'd have to note that no one in this video played on that song.) I ended up doing a lot of "non-rock" guitar for Rick Rubin-produced albums. Thanks to Rick liking what he called my "sad guitar," I played on Adele and Neil Diamond with legitimate guitar gods like Smokey Hormel and Mike Campbell.
I bumbled into being a "professional guitar player" pretty much because of how rad I think Glen Campbell is. I try — and mostly fail — to follow his example of making playing guitar seem like an honorable thing to do. He used his guitar in service of elevating the songs he played on, regardless of whether the songs were "his." The Jimmy Webb-written song "Wishing Now," above, is a great example.
I somehow still don't have a day job, and I guess that's on Glen.
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