The Life of a Song

Relistening to Glen Campbell’s “Gentle on My Mind”
Glen Campbell in 1972 (ZUMA Press Inc/Alamy Stock Photo)

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.”

It’s the genius of popular music to invoke mythic themes—themes that often contain more than a little heartbreak—and serve them up to us with the pain alchemized into precious memory.

To a child of the suburbs in the late sixties, the lyrics conjured my grandparents’ era, the Depression, and life lived in a country of scarcity, with the constant lure of a better destiny that might exist elsewhere. My grandparents recalled the “hobos” who came to their door during those years; and my grandfather, Clarence Cooper, had often told me the story of his older brother, Bill, who as a teenager had jumped a train on the Philadelphia, Wilmington & Baltimore Railroad, which ran directly behind their house, and disappeared. Bill would show up every few years, unannounced, and would stay until the spirit moved him to leave again.

The family’s father had died young, and Bill’s leaving put a heavy burden on my grandfather, who was forced to quit school at thirteen to help his mother support younger siblings. Not having his older brother there to help must have stung, but my grandfather revered Bill, and the stories he told me many decades later bore no trace of resentment—merely love for his vagabond brother, along with wonder at all he must have seen out there in the great wide world beyond. For me as a kid, it was easy to catch the ghost of the train tramp Bill Cooper in “Gentle on My Mind”:

I dip my cup of soup back from a gurglin’
Cracklin’ caldron in some train yard
My beard a-rustling, coal pile, and
A dirty hat pulled low across my face

Through cupped hands ’round the tin can
I pretend to hold you to my breast and find
That you’re waiting from the backroads
By the rivers of my memories
Ever smilin’ ever gentle on my mind

It’s the genius of popular music to invoke mythic themes—themes that often contain more than a little heartbreak—and serve them up to us with the pain alchemized into precious memory. For my grandfather, the passage of time had rubbed away whatever hurt his brother’s abandonment of the family had caused, leaving only the gleam of romance and a warm impression of love. Time had smoothed the rough edges, in much the way the song does.

As I grew older, the romance of the road in “Gentle on My Mind” dovetailed with other cultural inputs. There was Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, and a high-school English course on “The Myth of America,” in which we read James Fenimore Cooper’s The Prairie and Huckleberry Finn and John Updike’s Rabbit, Run. We watched the 1962 film Lonely are the Brave, with Kirk Douglas as a twentieth-century ranch hand who clings to the life of the cowboy and refuses to accept the modern world. At the end of the film he crosses a highway on his horse and is hit by a trucker (played by the younger Carroll O’Connor, who would go on to become Archie Bunker). These themes of American adventure and dreaming, the hope of discovery elsewhere, Huck Finn lighting out for the territories—all of it solidified my own dreams of travel and of the enormous world that awaited a traveler. It can’t be a coincidence that a kid who loved Glen Campbell’s vagabond ballad would end up living chunks of his twenties and thirties far away, in countries where other languages and other realities held sway.

 

As for Campbell, it would be a long time before I caught up with the reality of the actual man. What I couldn’t know at thirteen—partly because the internet did not yet exist—is that the mass-marketed singer I mocked as Mr. Milquetoast represented the taming of a prodigious and unruly talent. Like many other regional American performers, Glen Campbell wanted to reach bigger audiences. And in the mid-twentieth century, that meant mainstreaming his music and himself to connect with the huge horde of middle-class Americans who spent their evenings watching network TV.

One of twelve children of an Arkansas sharecropper, Campbell had taught himself to play on a five-dollar guitar his father bought him from a Sears catalog. He was formed by a welter of diverse influences, from music played at county fairs and church picnics to records of Django Reinhardt that he listened to over and over. Emerging in adulthood with a significant talent, he was canny enough to shape that talent for audiences of people like my parents, whose tastes and backgrounds could hardly have been more remote from his own. And it worked: the final tally of his fantastically successful career includes twelve gold albums, four platinum albums, and sales of 50 million records.

Only later, when I came to understand how popularizing performers like Campbell connect regional American music to the mainstream, would I be able to discern the authentic guitar player hiding within the mass-market, variety-hour guy. I now know that “Gentle on My Mind” was written and first recorded by John Hartford (1937–2001), a St. Louis–born fiddler, banjo player, and purveyor of Mississippi River lore. Hartford was a country-bluegrass musician of the type known to everyone inside the industry but relatively few outside it. Interestingly, he wrote “Gentle on My Mind” after watching the movie Doctor Zhivago and being thrilled by its epic love story. RCA released the song but didn’t promote it—and then Campbell heard it, loved it, and released his own single of it just a month later. Far from being resentful, it seems Hartford was glad that a song of his had made it to a mass audience. In fact, for a while he regularly performed on the Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour—where his composition served as the theme song, Campbell playing it every week to open the show.

This admiration within the guild—along with the song’s inherent appeal—may explain why so many singers have covered “Gentle on My Mind” down the years.

Some of the things I’ve learned about Campbell stunned me. One was that for a brief moment he’d been part of the Beach Boys, spending half a year (late 1964 and early 1965) filling in when Brian Wilson had had a breakdown and couldn’t perform. And indeed, you can find pictures of Campbell with the band, wearing one of their trademark striped button-down short-sleeve dress shirts. How had I, a devoted Beach Boys fan as a teenager, not known this?

The other thing was learning just how highly the music world regarded Campbell, revering him as a brilliant guitarist. When he died in 2017, the accolades poured in. Jimmy Webb, who wrote many of his songs, called him “an extraordinary genius.” Paul McCartney deemed him one of the best guitarists he had ever met. Alice Cooper described him as “one of the five best guitar players in the industry.” (I love that tribute from the ultimate wild-haired rocker to Mr. Smooth Hair. The two, it turns out, were not only friends, but golf partners.) Cooper likes to tell about the time that Eddie Van Halen—one of the greatest rock guitarists ever—came to him and meekly inquired, “Do you think you could get me a guitar lesson with Glen?”

This admiration within the guild—along with the song’s inherent appeal—may explain why so many singers have covered “Gentle on My Mind” down the years, including some unlikely ones. The list features Frank Sinatra (crooning lazily in an arrangement drowning in strings); Patti Page (the lyrics rewritten from a woman’s point of view); Dean Martin (jaunty, breezy, with upbeat trumpets, a disaster); Elvis Presley (poignant, throbbing vibrato); and Aretha Franklin (a soul version, enjoyably weird). To my ear, most of these covers, like John Hartford’s original, miss the wistful quality hiding beneath the ballad’s quick-skipping tempo, the loneliness sitting like a rock in the clear stream of the song.

As for Campbell’s own many performances of “Gentle” over the years, it’s hard to resist him at age thirty-one, dressed like a Western churchgoer in a brown blazer and playing a big, red guitar with his name gaudily emblazoned across the fretboard. But my favorite video is the one made in 1999 at “the mother church of country music,” Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, former home of the Grand Ole Opry. It was a musical party thrown for Campbell’s sixty-third birthday, where he was joined onstage by Willie Nelson, Roy Clark, Waylon Jennings, Lynn Anderson, Chet Atkins, and other pals. Campbell talks about hearing John Hartford’s “Gentle on My Mind” on the radio all those years ago and falling for it. “I like what the song says,” he observes, simply.

And then, with the assembled gods of country music sitting around him, Campbell performs “Gentle on My Mind”—slipping an impressive guitar break into the middle and making it look easy. As the gods show thrilled admiration at his offhand virtuosity, it is not at all difficult to imagine the kid in a farmhouse in Delight, Arkansas, circa 1949, playing his Django Reinhardt record, laboriously resetting the record needle again and again, bent on perfecting a skill and setting his life’s course by a far-off melody. When he’s done playing at the Ryman, Campbell looks up with a startled little laugh. “Just to look around and see all these faces hearing me singing,” he says, shaking his head. “Whoa—something went through me!”

 

I found myself returning to “Gentle on My Mind” during the final phase of Campbell’s life. I recall a photo that ran in the newspaper, sometime around 2010—a scowling police mug shot, taken after some bar altercation or drunk-and-disorderly arrest. It was shocking to see Glen Campbell looking unshaven, disheveled, and mean.

What the article did not disclose was that Campbell was already suffering from dementia. His subsequent decline is the subject of a heartbreaking and beautiful documentary, Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me, that chronicles his 2011–2012 “Goodbye Tour.” Alzheimer’s had torn away much of Campbell’s self, but not yet his performing self, and it’s shattering to watch him yielding ground to an implacable illness that is the opposite of gentle on the mind, and that wraps him in a cruel paradox—losing his memories, even as he continues to perform the ballads that evoke so much memory. At times he seems momentarily baffled between songs. But then he plays and sings, and smiles; and for an evanescent, sparkling moment, all is well again. 

Campbell’s movement into old age tracked with my father’s. Like anyone fortunate enough to reach extreme old age, my father has suffered significant physical decline. He is ninety-four now and uses a walker to get around. But he still does get around…and he’s still singing. Two months ago we celebrated Thanksgiving with him in Arizona, and one night he enthusiastically joined in a round of karaoke, crooning “Stardust” to my stepmother in that mellifluous tenor of his and leaving nary a dry eye in the house.

It is strange to think of Campbell gone, and my father, eight years older, plowing onward. I cherish the memories of him singing; and with the indelible power of the human voice to stay with us, perpetually vivid, I will surely cherish them even more when he is gone. Meanwhile, my teenager and I listen to “Gentle on My Mind” as we drive the streets of our town: Glen Campbell’s ballad of memory and homecoming, passed from my father to me, and now from me to my child. The life of the song goes on and on.

Published in the January 2023 issue: 
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Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal. His fiction has appeared in Harper’s, GQ, Esquire, the Atlantic, and many other magazines, as well as in Best American Short Stories. His novel, The Last to Go, was produced for television by ABC, and he has been a writer-in-residence at Amherst and Emerson colleges. 

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