Whether this hobbled his career, I have no idea, just as I have no real idea of what his stardom may have meant to him, or his disappearance from the charts after the mid-'70s. Of course, he could be labeled a transitional '60s-'70s artist in somewhat the same way you’d look at Harry Nilsson, a similarly deceptive middle-of-the-road pop singer Campbell covered in the late '60s. (You could draw a line from the string arrangements of Campbell’s “Wichita Lineman” and “Galveston” to Nilsson’s version of Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin’,” and get a good picture of that weird American playground I mentioned earlier. But that’s for another time, maybe.)
What Campbell presented last night at The Ryman was a man not exactly grappling with his myth and his legacy as a consummate professional, but the performance definitely had moments of uneasy theater as Campbell showed some signs of the Alzheimer’s disease that by now has become part of that myth. I don’t mean to be disrespectful — it was a remarkable performance by a great singer and guitarist, not to mention a total entertainer. He joked around with the audience, himself and his guitars, sang for the most part impeccably, played some rather startling guitar solos, and even essayed Paul Westerberg’s “Any Trouble” as the set wore on.
Backed by the band Instant People, whose members include three of Campbell’s children, he was definitely heroic, and the crowd loved him. As for Instant People, their opening set was superb — Celtic-newgrass-flavored banjo and guitar parts rocked under super-smooth vocals, with great harmonies. One number rolled along in a very hip 6/4 time signature and sounded like an update of such late-'60s groups as The Fifth Dimension, Rotary Connection and The Friends of Distinction. They got over on the sheer quality and inventiveness of their music.
Glen came out to the strains of “Gentle on My Mind,” which was perfect. Campbell played some octave-rich, Wes Montgomery-style licks in the solo and toyed with the song’s melody. Then it was on to “Galveston.” As he did during most of the night, Campbell let his guitar hang by his side and took the mic out of its stand to roam the stage. As he joked, “Mercy, my hair’s standin’ up!”
“Try a Little Kindness” found Campbell working in some oddball chromatics in the guitar solo, and there was “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” and a great version of Jimmy Webb’s “Where’s the Playground Susie.” I loved his patter: “This is another one of those playground songs. Lost love, man ... ” And let’s see, he even did “True Grit” and told a couple of John Wayne anecdotes.
It was around here that Glen sort of toyed around with his guitar, trying to find controls that weren’t there, but that was great, too, and he made jokes about people switching around his guitars all night long. As he told his daughter Ashley, whose singing, banjo playing, keyboards and general air of loving watchfulness amounted to a wonder of familial love and respect, “I know the guitar’s on, but this ain’t my guit-ar!" His version of Hank Williams Sr.’s “Lovesick Blues” — well, it was amazing, with Campbell slipping into a comic basso voice and rocking the song hard.
There was also a version of Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith’s “Dueling Banjos” that turned into an audience stomp-along, and then a short break while Campbell’s children did a version of “Hey Little One,” a track from the 1968 Hey Little One full-length. Campbell came back and did some songs from last year’s fine Ghost on the Canvas and slipped in a version of Conway Twitty’s “It’s Only Make Believe” while no one was looking.
Some guys in the pew in front of me — man, Captain Ryman or whoever has gotta line those pews with dollar bills or bubble-wrap or something, and remind me to remind you to never try to slip under that rope by the will-call window, even if you have your ticket, because they will hustle you outside to the line and all. Anyway, these guys in front of me, they had on trucker hats and lots of tattoos and drank beer all night, they whooped and hollered as the opening riff of “Southern Nights” came out of Campbell’s guitar. I don’t think they were being too ironic, but yeah, “Southern Nights” sure is the real yacht rock. Then it was pleasantly downhill, to a piano-and-vocal version of Jimmy Webb’s “The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress” and a full-band “Wichita Lineman.”
It was something else, and Campbell’s sheer joy at playing music — his sheer exuberance as an entertainer, I mean you can just go buy the records if want perfect versions of the songs — came through loud and clear. He did seem a little perplexed singing Westerberg’s great “Any Trouble,” which is a typically sly Westerbergian deflation of stardom, or something. It was an example of a man interacting with his myth, your ideas of who or what he is, and everyone’s awareness that one’s time on the stage is limited. With his children there to help him — and they are all great players, with special props to drummer Cal Campbell — it was an affirmation of family values in the truest sense of the term.