|Single by Glen Campbell|
|from the album Wichita Lineman|
|B-side||"Fate of Man"|
|Released||October 26, 1968 (week of)|
|Producer(s)||Al De Lory|
|Glen Campbell singles chronology|
"Wichita Lineman" is a song written by the American songwriter Jimmy Webb in 1968. It was first recorded by the American country music artist Glen Campbell with backing from members of The Wrecking Crew and was widely covered by other artists.
Campbell's version, which appeared on his 1968 album of the same name, reached number 3 on the US pop chart, remaining in the Top 100 for 15 weeks. In addition, the song topped the American country music chart for two weeks and the adult contemporary chart for six weeks. It was certified gold by the RIAA in January 1969. The song reached number 7 in the United Kingdom. In Canada, the single topped both the RPM national and country singles charts. As of August 2017[update] the song had also sold 357,000 downloads in the digital era in the United States.
In 2010, Rolling Stone magazine's list of the "500 Greatest Songs of All Time" ranked "Wichita Lineman" at number 195. It has been referred to as "the first existential country song". British music journalist Stuart Maconie called it "the greatest pop song ever composed"; and the BBC referred to it as "one of those rare songs that seems somehow to exist in a world of its own – not just timeless but ultimately outside of modern music". "Wichita Lineman" was featured in series 12 of BBC Radio 4's Soul Music, a documentary series featuring stories behind pieces of music with a powerful emotional impact. In 2017, Paste ranked the song number two on their list of the 12 greatest Glen Campbell songs, and Billboard ranked the song number three on their list of the 10 greatest Glen Campbell songs.
The single was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2000. In 2019, the song was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Recording Registry for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".
Background and content
Jimmy Webb stated in an interview for the BBC Radio 4 Mastertapes programme that the song was written in response to a phone call from Campbell for a "place" or "geographical" song to follow up "By the Time I Get to Phoenix". Webb's inspiration for the lyric came while driving through Washita County[a] in rural southwestern Oklahoma. At that time, many telephone companies were county-owned utilities, and their linemen were county employees.
Heading westward on a straight road into the setting sun, Webb drove past a seemingly endless line of telephone poles, each looking exactly the same as the last. Then he noticed, in the distance, the silhouette of a solitary lineman atop a pole. He described it as "the picture of loneliness". Webb then "put himself atop that pole and put that phone in his hand" as he considered what the lineman was saying into the receiver.
It was a splendidly vivid, cinematic image that I lifted out of my deep memory while I was writing this song. I thought, I wonder if I can write something about that? A blue collar, everyman guy we all see everywhere – working on the railroad or working on the telephone wires or digging holes in the street. I just tried to take an ordinary guy and open him up and say, 'Look there's this great soul, and there's this great aching, and this great loneliness inside this person and we're all like that. We all have this capacity for these huge feelings'.
Webb delivered what he regarded and labelled as an incomplete version of the song, warning the producer and arranger Al De Lory that he had not completed a third verse or a middle eight. Campbell said: "When I heard it I cried...It made me cry because I was homesick." De Lory similarly found inspiration in the opening line. His uncle had been a lineman in Kern County, California: "I could visualise my uncle up a pole in the middle of nowhere. I loved the song right away."
Webb's concerns about his song's shortcomings were addressed by adding a tremolo-infused Dano bass interlude performed by Campbell, who had made his reputation in the music industry as a session guitarist with the group of uncredited Los Angeles backing musicians known today as "The Wrecking Crew", many of whom played on the recording. One of them, bassist Carol Kaye, contributed the descending six-note intro. A second six-note bass lick improvised by Kaye was copied for strings by De Lory and inserted between the two couplets of each verse.
All the orchestral arrangements are by De Lory, who evokes the phrase "singing in the wire" using high-pitched, ethereal violins to emulate the sonic vibration commonly induced by wind blowing across small wires and conductors, making these lines whistle or whine like an aeolian harp. Similarly, he employs a repeating, monotonic 'Morse code' keyboard/flute motif to mimic the electronic sounds a lineman might hear through a telephone earpiece attached to a long stretch of 'raw' telephone or telegraph line; that is, without typical line equalization and filtering ("I can hear you through the whine").
Webb was surprised to hear that Campbell had recorded the song: "A couple of weeks later I ran into [Campbell] somewhere, and I said, 'I guess you guys didn't like the song'. 'Oh, we cut that' he said. 'It wasn't done! I was just humming the last bit!'. 'Well, it's done now!'" After listening to the test acetates of the studio recording that Campbell had with him, Webb contributed the overdub of evocative, reverberating electronic notes and open chords heard in the intro and fadeout, respectively, of the finished track, played on his Gulbransen electric organ.
The song contains two verses, each divided into two parts. The first part is in the key of F major, while the second is written in D major. D represents the relative minor position to F, so a D minor (as opposed to major) section would be expected. The fact that it is nevertheless set in D major is argued to contribute to the unique and appealing character of the song.
The lyrics follow the key dichotomy, with the first part of each verse (F major) handling issues related to a lineman's job (e.g. "searchin' in the sun for another overload", "if it snows, that stretch down south won't ever stand the strain"), whereas the second part (D major) dwells on the lineman's romantic thoughts. Set off against the F major of the first part, the D major of the second part sounds distinctively mellow, which is consistent with its content.
Basic instrumental[b] track
(May 27, 1968)
(August 14, 1968)
Charts and sales
This section needs additional citations for verification. (August 2017)
Many adult "middle of the road" (MOR) artists recorded the song, including Tom Jones, Johnny Mathis, Robert Goulet, Andy Williams, Bobby Goldsboro and Engelbert Humperdinck, most of them shortly after the original version was a hit. There were also many instrumental versions, including one by José Feliciano. In 2001 the instrumental band Friends of Dean Martinez included a cover version on their studio album of the same name, featuring lap steel guitarist Bill Elm. Guitarist Johnny A included an instrumental version on his 1999 release Sometime Tuesday Morning. The song has also been covered by artists such as Ray Charles, The Dells, Freedy Johnston, O.C. Smith, Willie Hutch, The Meters, These Animal Men, Maria McKee, Reg Presley of The Troggs, Sergio Mendes & Brasil '66, Kool & The Gang, Shawn Lee, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, James Taylor, R.E.M., The Clouds, Earl Van Dyke, Zucchero Fornaciari, King Harvest, Johnny Cash, Dwight Yoakam, Wayne Newton, Tony Joe White, Stoney LaRue, B.E.F., Urge Overkill, Black Pumas, Colin Hay and The Nottingham Youth Jazz Orchestra (Combo).
Jazz pianist Alan Pasqua developed an arrangement of the song for jazz trio that appears on his album My New Old Friend and Peter Erskine's album The Interlochen Concert. Jazz pianist John Harkins played an up-tempo rendition of the song on his 2015 album Cognition. Jazz pianist Laurence Hobgood recorded a version of the song combining a contemporary jazz trio with a string quartet. A soul-jazz version was also performed by Young-Holt Unlimited. A stripped-down version of the song also appears on Villagers' 2016 album Where Have You Been All My Life with a simple piano accompaniment.
Other covers of the song include that of Wade Hayes, who released a version in August 1997 that peaked at number 55 on the US country music charts. It was to have been included on an album entitled Tore Up from the Floor Up, but due to its poor chart performance, the album was delayed. That album was finally released in 1998 as When the Wrong One Loves You Right, with the "Wichita Lineman" cover excluded.
Guns N' Roses covered the song live during their "Not in This Life Time" world tour. The first live performance of the song was on August 30, 2017, in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. Rolling Stone magazine described it as "their most unexpected cover of the tour".
In other languages
Lyrics that are loose translations of, or inspired by, Webb's song have been written in at least two other languages: German and Finnish.
In popular culture
- Replaced in Webb's lyrics with Wichita, for singing purposes.
- Campbell overdubbed his vocals at a separate session.
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