This time of the year my #ridetirement social media hashtag becomes #guitarirement. I don’t do much riding, skiing or much else outdoors during wintertime anymore. Instead I’m doing my best to learn to be a passable guitar player before checking out. The bad news is that I have a long way to go. The good news is that I’ll never run out of things to do.
There are a couple of premium features to #guitarirement. The first is that music is supposed to ward off senility. The second is that my studio is warmer and cozier than a chairlift.
These days when I want to learn a piece of music there’s time to learn it exactly the right way instead of just kind of the right way. Kind of the right way might have cut it in cover bands but being a dilettante is no good for #guitarirement.
One of the things that I like to do when I learn a piece of music is to research its history and try to figure out what made it memorable in the first place. Contrary to the tale of “The Centipede’s Dilemma,” in which a centipede can no longer walk after thinking about how its legs work, I think that deconstructing a song makes it more enjoyable to learn and to perform.
Recently I came across an old favorite, “Wichita Lineman,” written by Jimmy Webb and first performed by Glen Campbell in 1968. It’s an awesome song. And one that’s popular enough to have been covered dozens of times by musicians of many genres from then until now.
There are all kinds of things that make “Wichita Lineman” cool — not the least among them being the backstory of how it came to be written and arranged.
Songwriter Jimmy Webb grew up in Elk City, Oklahoma. The inspiration for “Wichita Lineman” came from a memory of a childhood journey across Oklahoma and an endless line of telephone poles along a stretch of road with a solitary lineman on one of them off in the distance.
In 1967, Jimmy Webb was as hot of a songwriter as one can be having recently composed hits for the Fifth Dimension (“Up, Up And Away”) and Glen Campbell (“By The Time I Get To Phoenix”). “Phoenix” had been on the charts for about six months when Campbell called Webb (the two had not yet met in person) and asked him for another “geographical” song: “One that makes me long for home.”
Webb wrote the song that afternoon. Part of it anyway. He recorded an unfinished demo consisting of the first two verses and a chorus and sent it to Campbell sans bridge, third verse or ending. After not hearing anything for a few weeks Webb assumed that Campbell had passed on the song.
In fact “Wichita Lineman” had blown Campbell and producer Al Delory away. Campbell had recorded “Wichita Lineman” with his colleagues from The Wrecking Crew, a group of studio musicians (Campbell being a member in good standing) who played on countless hits of the era.
Starting with Webb’s lyrics and unfinished outline, Campbell, Delory, bassist Carol Kaye (you should look her up) and eventually Webb himself all contributed to the final arrangement.
Kaye came up with the unusual six-note bass intro, Delory the evocative orchestration, Campbell borrowed Kaye’s six-string DanElectro bass and improvised the iconic bridge solo.
In the demo Webb sent to Campbell and Delory, he’d used a Gulbransen organ to produce a one-note, Morse-code pattern in the chorus that evoked the sound of signals passing along telephone lines. Delory and Campbell had Webb bring that very organ to a recording session to play the part just like in the demo — which Delory then augmented with a string arrangement designed to mimic the aeolian harp effect of wind singing in the wires.
“Wichita Lineman” exudes loneliness — and it’s more than just its austere “less is more” lyrical structure of the song. It’s built into the chordal structure of the song itself. “Wichita Lineman” starts off in the key of F but never resolves completely back to that. Instead it’s a haunting journey through major, minor, slash and sus chords with some really unexpected changes that make the song interesting to listen to over and over.
All of this was way more than the pop songs of then (or even now) are known for.
Not enough can be said about the talent of Glen Campbell as a singer and a guitarist. Campbell, an accomplished sideman well before he became famous himself in the late ‘60s, couldn’t read music. That’s incredible. One of LA’s most sought-after session musicians could not read music.
Campbell could absolutely shred lines on a guitar and could sing notes that no one should be able to sing. Listen to him sing the melody over the A7sus4 to the Bbmaj7 change in “Wichita Lineman” (and the “Wichita Lineman” is still on the line). That’s some good stuff right there.
So go find a copy of “Wichita Lineman” and give it a play. I hope that unlike the centipede, you’ll enjoy the song even more knowing a bit about how it was all put together.
Associated Press and Idaho Press Club award-winning columnist Martin Hackworth of Pocatello is a physicist, writer, consultant and retired Idaho State University faculty member who now spends his time happily raising three children, llama farming and riding mountain bikes and motorcycles.