Glen Campbell said that the first time he heard Jimmy Webb’s demo for “Wichita Lineman,” he wept. He could see it so clearly: a solitary figure at the top of a telephone pole, working, dreaming—at once a picture of loneliness and stoic self-reliance, the man who belongs to no one. Campbell had originally asked for something like 1967’s “By the Time I Get to Phoenix.” What Webb delivered, though, not only framed the convergence of pop, country, and jazz, but it also helped open a particularly American feeling that defined ballads in the ’70s: hazy, romantic, gentle but existentially troubled—a song cowboys could feel without knowing how to sing.
Alongside Bobbie Gentry’s Ode to Billie Joe and Johnny Cash’s At San Quentin (Live), Wichita Lineman is one of the first albums to find its way to the top of both the pop and country charts at the same time. But whereas a performer like Cash staked out space for country on its own, Campbell blends it with cabaret pop (Jacques Brel’s “If You Go Away,” “Dreams of the Everyday Housewife”), soul (“[Sittin’ On] The Dock of the Bay”), and singer-songwriter folk (“Reason to Believe”) as though home is wherever he goes. (Remember that he’d played bass for The Beach Boys on a 1964 tour and had even been asked to join as a permanent member.)
During a segment on a summer replacement for TV’s legendary Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, which Campbell hosted shortly before Wichita Lineman’s release, he says he hopes to just do a good job. The audience laughs, but you don’t sense that he’s joking. The beauty of Wichita Lineman isn’t just that it charts new territory, but that it does so with a naive heart.