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Thursday 8 December 2016

Music: Praise for a classic of American songbook

Published 24/01/2016 | 02:30

Masterful songwriter: Jimmy Webb performs at Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tennessee last June.
Masterful songwriter: Jimmy Webb performs at Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tennessee last June.
Jimmy Webb with Glen Campbell in 2012.

It was a phone call from record producer Al De Lory that set Jimmy Webb on the road to 'Wichita Lineman'. He was relaying a message from Glen Campbell, who had scored a huge hit with Webb's 'By the Time I Get to Phoenix' the previous year, and he wanted the songwriter to pen another tune about a town. It was early summer 1968 and Oklahoma native Webb was just 21 at the time. It was one of the first times he had been given such a specific brief, and although he has given conflicting reports about how he felt about having to think of geographical reference points, he gave it a go.

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The end result was a song that would soon become a singer-songwriter staple. Once described as "the first existential country song", it is one of the most evocative meditations on loneliness and lovelorn yearning in the great American songbook.

"I had been driving around northern Oklahoma," Webb recalled years later, "an area that's real flat and remote - almost surreal in its boundless horizons and infinite distances. I'd seen a lineman up on a telephone pole, talking on the phone. It was such a curiosity to see a human being perched up there." Webb imagined what it would be like to be working alone in such a removed, inhospitable place and to be far away from a loved one. The area in question was Washita County, but Webb changed the name to Wichita because, he felt, it simply sounded better.

He wrote the bones of it, sitting at his piano, in just two hours. He decided to send a version he considered three-quarters complete to De Lory for his feedback. "It wasn't finished," Webb later recalled. "There was a whole section in the middle that I didn't have words for."

But De Lory loved it. In fact, the song would speak directly to him because his uncle happened to be a lineman in California. "As soon as I heard that opening line ['I am a lineman for the county']," De Lory said, "I could visualise my uncle up a pole in the middle of nowhere. I loved the song right away." Overruling Webb's insistence that 'Lineman' wasn't finished, De Lory set to work on its celebrated instrumental break. Years later, Campbell insisted that the incredible sense of yearning conveyed by the song was, at least in part, motivated by the fact that Webb had also been inspired by his first serious relationship - to a woman who would go on to marry Linda Ronstadt's cousin.

'Wichita Lineman' boasts one of the most unabashed declarations of love ever written - "I need you more than want you/ And I want you for all time" - and it's a testament to Webb's intuitive talent as a writer that the words aren't needy or saccharine, but rather convey unmistakably real emotion.

As soon as he heard the demo, Campbell sensed it was a very special song. "Every hair follicle stood up on my body," he remembered. "It's just a masterfully written song."

Campbell's version - which appeared on an album of the same name - was an immediate success and remains one of the songs he is most associated with. Clocking in at almost exactly three minutes, it's proof that, at its finest, a truly great song only needs a few minutes to convey a multitude and resonate through the generations.

It's one of the most covered songs ever and the latest to have a go is Conor O'Brien, Villagers' songwriter and vocalist. The Dubliner's version of 'Wichita Lineman' is the concluding track on an album of freshly recorded versions of existing Villagers' material called Where Have You Been All My Life? that was released earlier this month.

O'Brien's vocal is a thing of beauty and the sensitive accompaniment demonstrates the majesty of Webb's song. It's a faithful, reverential version, every bit as lovely as the one REM recorded for the B-side of the 'Bittersweet Me' single 20 years ago. But I've yet to hear a version that improves on the Campbell original. The arrangement, from De Lory, flits from plaintive to sumptuous. And it was the producer who had the inspired idea of employing a synthesiser to try to mimic the sound of morse code that subtly plays just as the "… still on the line" chorus concludes.

Webb resisted recording his own version for many years, although a beautifully stark, piano-led interpretation appears on his Ten Easy Pieces album from 1996. Incidentally, that album's high point is surely the gorgeous version of 'MacArthur Park' that cuts out the melodrama of Richard Harris's celebrated 1968 version.

It was a sign of Webb's songwriting powers back then that in '69, both 'Wichita Lineman' and 'MacArthur Park' were nominated for a Grammy for best solo male performance. They lost out to José Filicano's 'Light My Fire', although Webb had tasted glory the previous year when Campbell and 'By the Time I Get to Phoenix', beat efforts from such luminaries as Frank Sinatra and Ray Charles in the male vocal performance category, while his first significant song, 'Up Up and Away' won the two biggies, Record of the Year and Song of the Year.

In 1969, Webb and Campbell joined forces once more on another placename-referencing song, the anti-war classic, 'Galveston' - and Webb's reputation as one of the great songwriters of his time was secure.

Today, Campbell is 79 and living out his days in a nursing home having suffered from Alzheimer's for a number of years. Webb is 10 years younger and although he continues to write material for a wide variety of singers, his work no longer touches the zeitgeist like it once did.

Meanwhile, Webb has said the enduring appeal of 'Wichita Lineman' is somewhat bemusing.

"From a songwriter's point of view, I am absolutely amazed at the take someone will have for one song and how oblivious they are to another one that I've laboured over and burnt the midnight oil over and suffered over, and it goes by with no notice whatsoever."

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