‘Wichita Lineman’: 5 Covers of the Infamous ‘Unfinished’ Song Glen Campbell Opened up the Loneliness Portal To

September 21st, 2017: As seen on SONGLYRICS (PDF)

Glen Campbell performs ‘Wichita Lineman’ on ‘The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour’; Photo: YouTube


The late country great Glen Campbell left us this past Tuesday (August 8) at 81-years-young due to complications from Alzheimer’s disease.

The son of sharecropper learned about his disease in 2011 and went public with it soon thereafter. Though instead of retreating into the spoils of his long, illustrious career, Campbell made a rage against the dying light move and hit the road with a 151-stop tour until he physically couldn’t keep going, at which point, he raged even further and dropped his final album, Adios, on his own swan song terms.

Campbell’s impression on country was indelible, that cut up the line between Americana and pop like no one before him. A golden-hour smooth talking good ol’ boy from Texas who never learned how to read music, he was like Joe Buck in Midnight Cowboy who packed a suitcase and shot the moon for Hollywood instead of the New York sex trade, though rife with plenty of his own dark drug habits and failed relationships that lurked beneath the layer of his sparkling chart-topping ride from Beach Boys session hand to “Rhinestone Cowboy.”

He was no outlaw by any means, and was hosting everyone from The Monkees to Liberace on The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour around the era Townes Van Zandt was dropping songs like “Waitin’ Around to Die,” though the man played guitar on Pet Sounds.

And though Campbell didn’t write the lyrics to the majority of his hits, pairing with Songwriters Hall of Famer Jimmy Webb for all the marquee numbers from “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” to “Galveston,” and “Wichita Lineman,” every one of those songs are laced with these noir narratives that Campbell made an art form out of portraying the bittersweet.

These were grand brass and string productions about lovelorn Vietnam soldiers headed into battle (“Galveston”) and crumbling relationships (“By the Time I Get to Phoenix”) that when dished with Campbell’s buttery croon have the same effect as the California sun hammering the hills until the depression cracks start to show.

The most notorious of that bunch was “Wichita Lineman,” though, about a down and out telephone wire man in Wichita, Kansas, perpetually “searchin’ in the sun for another overload,” thinking about the isolation of his life and loves while ironically helping hundreds of people connect to each other through wires.

Jimmy Webb conceived the song specifically for Campbell, telling American Songwriter a couple years ago that he didn’t think it was finished and needed a final verse, presumably so the song’s blue collar protagonist could pine over his love some more out there in prairie gothic land.

Of course as things like this go, the cosmos made the song perfect the way its dusty narrative and wind-weary wall of string melody echoed into the vast open space, with the chorus “and the Wichita lineman is still on the line” becoming a portmanteau of a perfect pop-country lyric. You can literally feel the wires whipping around — Campbell and the Wrecking Crew, who he recorded the song with, added strings and synth to mimic the sounds a lineman would hear up on a repair job.

It was this iceberg-thoery space between the two genres that allows for one of those rare portals in music where the loneliness arch is a universal expression. And everyone from R.E.M. to Keith Urban has taken a crack at its catharsis over the years.

Aside from Campbell, and the amazing 1968 promo video that has him riding around on a carousel you should watch right now, so go the five best versions people have channelled to date, complete with a lyric primer before the jump.

I am a lineman for the county
And I drive the main road
Searchin’ in the sun for another overload
I hear you singin’ in the wire,
I can hear you through the whine
And the Wichita lineman is still on the line

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

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


 

Urge Overkill

 

Like boiling Jimmy Webb’s melody over a spoon, and puts R.E.M.’s version to shame with one shoegaze of a stroke of Nash Kato’s distorted guitar thread. All of the alienation and humdrummery of working for the man at the cost of one’s soul and body is amplified as if our protagonist electrocutes himself, takes a fall, and is lying in the dirt all fried and stunned, almost even diluting the lovelorn element altogether, in the best way possible, as Kato turns Campbell’s buttery vocals into a fuzzy arena howl.

 


 

Sergio Mendes & Brasil ’66

 

Under pressure from record label execs to reach a wider appeal outside of Brazil, jazz piano icon Sergio Mendes recruited two American women who could double-up in English and Portuguese, and, well, add a dynamic like this soft-hued 60s cross-over country-samba gem. Changing the pronouns in the opening verse to address the lineman, singers Lani Hall and Bibi Vogel turn the stakes up on the lover’s tension from the get-go, while the congas, shakers, brass and Mendes river-babbling piano unfurl to add some palm trees and vegetation to this otherwise barren original middle-of-Kansas landscape, making the whole thing feel like a tropical Charlie’s Angels episode.

 


 

Sammy Davis Jr.

 

As Dean Martin lays out in this clip from his tv show in the early 70s, Sammy doesn’t need an intro. But the funk breakbeat does. Story goes he financed the record it was housed on — 1970’s Something For Everyone himself to drop a project on Motown, and like Mendes, reach a wider audience. Something for everyone indeed. Half James Brown strut with “lord” and “I’m talking about the line” interjections, half quintessential Sammy croon, this majestic almost blaxploitation vibe rears its head, showing once again that the Jimmy Webb melody allows these lyrics to see themselves in everywhere from rural Kansas telephone wires to Manhattan.

 


 

Johnny Cash

 

A shoe-in from the Rick Rubin twilight Unearthed Cash sessions the Man in Black cut in a series in five records in the early 2000s shortly before his death, this one pays candlelit alt-country homage to Glen Campbell the most, Cash and Campbell paralleling each other’s careers a few times, each hosting each on their respective tv shows. Rubin made Cash’s guitar sound like an old redwood, subduing the rest of the arrangement’s string and piano parts to subtleties to let Cash’s equally wizard of the tumbleweeds vocals deliver the sermon, just as you would imagine the lineman working on those telephone wires well into his 80s, still pining for that love “for all time.” It’s perfect.

 


 

Sunday’s Child

 

And finally this one-off soul Easter Egg with this crazy Sammy Davis Jr. connection. An all female trio from Portland, Oregon kicked up enough stardust to gain the attention of Sammy, who helped land them a deal with Reprise Records, and cut this cover on their only LP in 1970. At first listen it sounds like a sexier version of Sammy’s James Brown freewheeling spin. But morphing through a handful of tempos and harmonies from runaway R&B to sauntering french-horn lulled ballad, the end result is something even more special, like a broadway version from the perspective of the lineman’s lover forced to watch her man from afar on a steam train rolling by his route.

 

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