Recently I made a mixed-tunes CD for the sixteen-year-old in the family, a newly minted driver who happens to love all things vintage, including CDs. The collection is called “New Driver, Old Tunes,” and its list of pop hits from the 1960s and ’70s—my childhood and teen era—includes songs by megastars (Smokey Robinson, The Beach Boys) along with one-hit wonders such as “Venus” by Shocking Blue and “Pillow Talk” by Sylvia. Growing up in Connecticut, I was not at all a country-music kid, and the forty-song playlist I assembled for my kid features exactly one country tune: “Gentle on My Mind,” by Glen Campbell.
I’m interested in how a popular song can figure in your life, disappearing and resurfacing down the decades—as if the song has a life of its own within your life. The story of Glen Campbell in my life begins with my father singing. My father, Don Cooper, trained in the Philadelphia church choirs of his youth, had a terrific singing voice. It was glossy and supple, with a big range. When I was a kid, I thought everyone’s dad went around singing all the time; the weekends of my childhood were set to the sound of “Coop” singing as he did stuff around the house.
My father liked show tunes and favored the crooners of his era—Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Perry Como, Mel Tormé, Tony Bennett. They were a distinctly urban lot, which made sense for a guy who’d lived in Philly until he was almost thirty. But somehow he made room among the Rat Pack for an Arkansas-born-and-bred good old boy who graced his country-inflected ballads with a wistful twang. My father’s favorite Glen Campbell song was “Wichita Lineman,” and I can still hear the glee in his voice as he yodeled it out while shining his shoes or changing a light bulb, “I am a lineman for the count-eeeee / And I drive the main road / Searchin’ in the sun for another overload!”
Of course, for a thirteen-year-old in that era, Glen Campbell was about as uncool as you could get. Today it’s not easy to recall how vast the gulf was between parent and teen music back then. Were your parents going to listen to “Smoke on the Water”? And what in God’s name was a teenager supposed to do with Mel Tormé? As for Campbell, everything about him was wrong, beginning with that perfect hair. In the anything-goes, post-postmodern era we live in today, it can be hard to comprehend the stark dichotomies of style that held sway in 1971. If you were a rocker and you wanted teenagers to like you, you were supposed to look like you belonged to Black Sabbath or Aerosmith. You needed to have long, wild hair and be brazenly unkempt. Well, Glen Campbell was totally and embarrassingly kempt. That perfect bowl was a hairstyle that fifty-year-olds might approve of in order to feel they were, you know, keeping up with the times. It was hair Nixon might like.
Then there was Campbell’s TV variety show, The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour. I’m sure I found it lame, one of those kitschy, inoffensive variety shows where humor and music alike were safely homogenized, made bland for mass consumption. The goodtime hour: it even sounded milquetoast.
And yet…the problem was that I secretly liked Glen Campbell’s songs. Their lonesome heartfeltness appealed to me. Sometimes, when none of my friends were over, I would take one of his albums from the record chest in our family room and play it. I liked the brassy, sunny, swinging tempo of “Galveston,” which belied its lyrics’ haunted sadness, and found I had to suppress a distressing impulse to cry at “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” another song my father liked to sing.
“Gentle on My Mind” was not one of the Campbell songs my father sang. With its rush of words like a babbling brook, it was hard to memorize—a song you listened to rather than sang. The future writer in me liked songs that told stories, and “Gentle on My Mind” told an inviting one, channeling both the hardships and freedoms of life on the road while summoning warm thoughts of a loved one left behind. Here’s how it opens:
It’s knowing that your door is always open
And your path is free to walk
That makes me tend to leave my sleeping bag
Rolled up and stashed behind your couch
The ballad goes on to develop themes that would become my own preoccupations: the mellow-melancholy realities of our passage through time and place; the allure of memory; and the call of a country vaster than I could imagine, “the wheat fields and the clothes lines / and the junkyards and the highways” of the America beyond the confines of a New England I had never left. All this, plus the anchoring strength of the love that the traveler carries with him—a love whose steadfast persistence “keeps you in the backroads / By the rivers of my memory / That keeps you ever gentle on my mind.”