Glen Campbell’s Jimmy Webb-penned signature hit “Wichita Lineman” turns 50
It’s a song by a writer from Oklahoma about a stretch of road in Kansas, sung most famously and most enduringly by a kid from Arkansas who packed his guitar and headed west to the Golden State.
In a year, 1968, that was all about turmoil and chaos and division, violence and dissent, “Wichita Lineman” was a plainly told American story about a solitary man doing his job, keeping the connective lines of communication functioning. “I am a lineman for the county” (that would be Sedgwick County, Kansas) he says by way of introduction, “and I drive the main road.” His work is affected by the whims of the weather (sun, rain, snow), and it’s a lonely, repetitive gig. There is someone on his mind whom he can hear through the wire, but he can’t get back to her, and the song ends where it began: “And the Wichita lineman is still on the line.” Glen Campbell’s recording of Jimmy Webb’s greatest song entered the Billboard singles chart in November 1968, and the saga of “Wichita Lineman” has spent the last half-century being told and retold. The unnamed protagonist is an archetypal figure, like a hero in a Howard Hawks action film, a character in a Larry McMurtry novel.
Campbell had recently scored a hit with Webb’s “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” (Johnny Rivers got to that one first, but as Webb’s music publisher, he’d pitched it to Campbell), and wanted another geographically rooted follow-up. Webb remembered seeing a lone worker on a telephone pole out in the middle of nowhere, put himself inside that man’s mind, and sketched out a song that he thought might fit the bill. It wasn’t finished, he thought; it was just two verses, no bridge, and it needed something else to fill it out. Campbell and his producer Al De Lory thought it was just fine the way it was, and in place of a bridge or another verse, Campbell borrowed Carol Kaye’s six-string bass (Kaye came up with the record’s famous scene-setting bass intro) and played a deep, almost-Duane Eddyesque-twangy, guitar solo. Webb added some organ notes that suggested a distant signal, De Lory wrote a beautiful (Grammy-nominated) string arrangement, and the result was a classic single that became Campbell’s biggest hit to that point, peaking at #3 in Billboard.
By the time “Wichita Lineman” came out, Campbell was already on quite a roll. He’d taken over the Smothers Brothers’ network time slot for the summer of ’68 (his musical guests included Cream, Lulu, the Everly Brothers, Johnny Cash) and was about to start his own prime time variety series (it debuted in January ’69). As ’68 came to a close, he had six albums in the top 100 (including an album of duets with labelmate Bobbie Gentry, of Chickasaw County, Mississippi), and the Wichita Lineman album had reached the top slot, knocking out Big Brother & the Holding Company’s Cheap Thrills. There was something so ingratiating about Campbell, something unaffected and direct, quintessentially American. In another era, he might’ve been a singing cowboy like Tex Ritter (who did a song called “Wichita,” the theme from a 1955 movie starring Joel McCrea). He made his reputation as a hot-shot guitar-slinger in L.A.’s Wrecking Crew, playing on countless sessions, but he proved to be a singer of tremendous warmth and believability. When he gets to the line “I hear you singing in the wire,” with that forlorn Webb melody, it’s like a stab to the heart. And he casually navigates the virtuosic alliterative run of “If it snows that stretch down south won’t ever stand the strain.”
“Wichita Lineman” has done what the best songs do, travel through the decades, become part of our collective memory. It has been covered and covered. By Andy Williams and Axl Rose. By R.E.M. and the Lettermen. After it became a smash hit, artists from all genres rushed to record it, and that might seem strange for a song that has such geographical specificity, such rural undercurrent, but that melody, and that hook, proved too compelling to ignore. There were jazz versions (Freddie Hubbard), easy-listening instrumental versions (Al Hirt, King Curtis), R&B versions (The Meters with Art Neville on vocals; the Dells). Sammy Davis Jr. tried, awkwardly, to swing it, and Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66 gave it their typical bossa nova lilt (and had a low-charting single with it), Joe Simon and Tony Joe White did it as country-soul. Eddy Mitchell, a French singer recording in Nashville, presented it as “Seul est L’Indompté,” which translates as “Alone Is the Untamed” (?). There’s a lovely reading by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, which makes sense, because “And I need you more than want you/And I want you for all time” could easily be a Smokey couplet.
The song reverberated over the years, through affecting performances by Ray Charles, Johnny Cash, Raul Malo, James Taylor. In 2002, Stone Temple Pilots backed Campbell on a touching, respectful new take of the song. On New Year’s Eve 2011, Michael Stipe sang it at a Patti Smith show at Bowery Ballroom, and he and Patti did an onstage slow dance to it during the iconic guitar break. “Wichita Lineman” seemed to pop up everywhere as news of Campbell’s illness became public, and then after his death in August 2017. Little Big Town did it on the CMAs; Dwight Yoakam, who’d recorded it, sang it at a Carnegie Hall tribute to Jimmy Webb; Keith Urban made it a part of his set (he and Campbell had done it together in 2009). Even the refurbished Guns N’ Roses took a live shot at it.
At a ceremony dinner for the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2003, Billy Joel presented an award to Jimmy Webb, and all of us in the hotel ballroom watched as the piano-playing singer-songwriter turned his speech into a nearly phrase-by-phrase musical illustration and lyrical dissection of what makes “Wichita Lineman” such an exceptional work. His mini-lecture was insightful and funny, and it felt like the ultimate compliment that one piano-playing songwriter can pay another: Damn, I’d never have thought of that. “Maybe a commercial fisherman with his heavy gear has the spirit of a John Steinbeck. Maybe a guy climbing up a telephone pole has the spirit of a Samuel Barber,” he said. “That’s what this song did to me.” Some years later, Webb and Joel shared vocals on “Wichita Lineman” on Webb’s album Just Across the River.
Jimmy Webb may have thought that “Wichita Lineman” was incomplete, that there was a blank space for another part of the scene that he wanted to draw. But that’s part of what keeps us going back to the song, the feeling that there’s more he’s not saying, the way it jumps from wondering what impact the weather might have, to a sudden confession (“I need you more than want you”), to the non-resolution. The lineman is suspended far above the ground, alone with his thoughts, and we’ve caught only a faraway glimpse of him as we drive by.