Country Music Legend Glen Campbell Dies at 81

Glen Campbell
Owen Sweeney/REX/Shutterstock

Country legend Glen Campbell, whose crossover hits “Gentle on My Mind,” “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” and “Rhinestone Cowboy” forged a lasting bridge between country and pop music, died Tuesday. He was 81.

In 2011, Campbell announced he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and mounted a well-publicized farewell tour. His official Twitter posted the news of his death. His daughter, Ashley Campbell, also shared a heartfelt message online.

Campbell was hardly the first country artist to break out of the rural regional radio ghetto — the Nashville Sound of Patsy Cline and Jim Reeves had produced several wide-appeal hits in the early ’60s — but his influence in expanding country music’s parameters and fanbase was substantial. His signature hits often combined orchestral arrangements and traditional pop hooks with countrified lyrical themes and vocal stylings, catalyzing both the “countrypolitan” and soft rock subgenres that would proliferate in the 1970s. (John Denver and Kenny Rogers both owe much of their careers to Campbell’s example.)

He sold more than 45 million records in his career and topped the country singles chart 12 times.

Crossover came naturally to the tall, solidly built Campbell, who enjoyed a pre-stardom career as a prolific session musician for rock, pop and country acts alike. He possessed a calmly authoritative tenor and impeccable guitar chops, but his genial, easygoing charm as a performer was thrown into sharp relief by his hotheaded offstage character, with his reputation marred by substance abuse and allegations of domestic violence. Later becoming a born-again Christian, Campbell continued to maintain a steady audience well into his seventh decade, opening his own theater in Branson, Mo.

Born into a sharecropping family in a tiny town in southwestern Arkansas, Campbell was the seventh of 12 children. Picking up guitar at an early age, he left home at age 14 to pursue music, eventually landing in Los Angeles, where he fathered his first child at age 17. Out west, Campbell soon found himself an in-demand session musician with the now-storied studio conglomerate dubbed the Wrecking Crew, recording guitar parts for such varied acts as Nat “King” Cole, Frank Sinatra, the Monkees, Merle Haggard and Elvis Presley.

Campbell reached the height of his session player power in 1965, when he became a touring member of the Beach Boys — playing bass to compensate for the absent Brian Wilson — as well as contributing guitar parts to the group’s landmark “Pet Sounds” album. All the while, Campbell had been erratically pursuing a solo career, recording mostly unremarkable singles for Crest Records and later Capitol. Though he broke onto country radio a few times, he began to lose favor with Capitol label heads, who by the mid-’60s were pondering dropping him from the roster.

Fortunately they didn’t, as Campbell’s career experienced a sudden, dramatic upswing in 1967, when he recorded a rendition of John Hartford’s “Gentle on My Mind.” Though the 45 barely breached the top-40 singles chart, the titular LP was a runaway success, topping the country album chart and reaching No. 5 on the pop charts.

Follow-up single “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” was an even bigger hit, reaching No. 2 on the country chart and marking the beginning of Campbell’s collaborations with songwriter Jimmy Webb, whose compositions would provide Campbell with hits for years to come. Underscoring the universality of the burgeoning star’s appeal, Campbell won four Grammys for the two songs at the 1967 awards — two in country categories, the other two in pop categories.

This turned out to be the opening salvo in a remarkable streak of hits for the singer. Starting with “Gentle,” Campbell managed to rack up seven consecutive country album chart-toppers over a two year period, recording such iconic tracks as “Wichita Lineman,” “Galveston,” “Dreams of the Everyday Housewife” and a string of duets with Bobbie Gentry. LP “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” won Campbell an album of the year Grammy in 1968.

Outside of music, he began hosting a weekly CBS variety show, “The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour,” in 1969, and made a promising foray into acting that same year in Paramount’s “True Grit,” playing La Boeuf alongside John Wayne’s Rooster Cogburn. (Campbell was nominated for a Golden Globe for his performance, and his titular song contribution to the film was nominated for an original song Oscar.) A starring role in 1970’s “Norwood” followed. After his show was cancelled in 1972, Campbell remained visible with a plethora of one-off TV specials, though his film career never really took off.

His hitmaking pace cooled off in the early ’70s — even “Reunion,” a collaboration with Webb, failed to catch fire — but his career reignited in 1975 with the release of “Rhinestone Cowboy.” A Larry Weiss-penned ode to showbiz durability, the song would become Campbell’s signature, and it reached No. 1 on both the country and pop charts that year, as did the LP of the same name. Singles “Country Boy (You Got Your Feet in L.A.)” and “Southern Nights” followed to comparable success.

However, Campbell’s substance abuse escalated in the last half of the decade. Divorcing his second wife Billie Jean Nunley in 1976, Campbell married Sarah Barg later the same year. The couple divorced in 1980, and Campbell immediately began dating singer Tanya Tucker, 17 years his junior. The two notched a minor duet hit with “Dream Lover,” but their relationship, a frequent tabloid fixture, could be toxic. At its nadir, Tucker claimed Campbell once beat her viciously enough to knock out her two front teeth. (Campbell denied the incident, though he admitted that their relationship occasionally turned violent.)

The two broke up, and Campbell found domestic peace with his fourth and final wife, Kimberly Woollen, a former Rockette whom he married in 1982. He eventually worked his way toward sobriety — though he would later fall off the wagon in 2002 and serve a brief stint in prison for drunk driving — and newfound spirituality during the decade, returning to full force as a performer and releasing several inspirational records. He opened up the Glen Campbell Goodtime Theater in Branson in 1995 and toured steadily until Alzheimer’s forced him into retirement.

Campbell made the most of his later recording years. He returned to Capitol Records in 2008 for “Meet Glen Campbell,” and 2011’s “Ghost on the Canvas” returned Campbell to the top 10 of the country album chart for the first time since the 1970s. His final studio album, “Adios,” was released earlier this summer, from sessions Campbell recorded in 2012 and 2013.

In addition to his five Grammys and large collection of CMA and ACM awards, Campbell was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2005 and received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2012.

Filmmaker James Keach documented the progression of Campbell’s illness and its effect on the family’s lives and work in “Glen Campbell … I’ll Be Me,” released in 2014. The film blends unflinching medical details, poignant performance footage and a survey of its subject’s place in musical history.

Campbell is survived by wife Kimberley and eight children, three of whom played in his backing band during his final farewell tour.

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    1. rys says:

      I’m not worth it but keep gentle to remember him on my mind ..

    2. WEEDLSD says:

      oh my god

    3. deantreadway10 says:

      The fact that Campbell netted a Best Song Oscar nomination for co-writing “I’m Not Gonna Miss You” for the 2014 documentary could easily be added to this article. BTW, it was his first and only Oscar nomination, as he was not the writer of “True Grit.”

    4. My wife of thirty years is in stage five of Early Onset Alzheimer’s. She and I sat cuddled together and watched several videos about Glenn’s struggle with this horrible disease. Then, she said something that put a stake through my heart. She looked at me, tears streaming down her face, and said; “I thought we’d have more time”. At that moment, I knew that she was fully aware of her fate and it was the first time she was willing to acknowledge it.
      It’s times like that when you just can’t hold someone tight enough to make the pain go away.
      We’re Bruce N Ann Williams on facebook. Look us up and read more of our Alzheimer’s journey.

    5. My Sincerest Condolences to Glen’s Family ….I truly Love all your music ….R.I.P. Glen

    6. Ed says:

      The dude picked up his guitar and just played it and sang along with music that reached into your soul and resonated with all the best things that music should stand for. RIP, bro’, you made your mark and were true to it.

    7. Stan says:

      Even at the height of his stardom, there was a segment of the public familiar with Glen Campbell, but who still didn’t realize just what a talent he was. Campbell was a brilliant guitarist, able to play a variety of styles, from rock to country. He was fast, could play complex pieces, but also knew how to be subtle and tasty. Any guitarist will also tell you how difficult it is to play while SINGING (and singing well), and
      Mr. Campbell could do that too; not just strum, but play tough parts while vocalizing. He was a beast of a talent, the kind that doesn’t come around very
      often. R.I.P.

    8. Alex Meyer says:

      RIP.

    9. Tim says:

      And the Wichita lineman is still on the line. Godspeed, Glen.

    10. Sylvia Squier says:

      All The Best of The Best of our time are leaving us! IF only more will pick up a guitar and write and play a song telling of our time now AND ahead of us…The feelings and emotions and love and sorrow and families ties and meanings worth feeling! May there be some talent that you taught in spirit to follow you SIR…Carrying the moments of time along and that we will listen to the significant under tones to teach us how to live…We only live on Earth a short while…May we hold you in our hearts Til we see you again!

    11. Inez says:

      Loved him. He will be missed by millions of us. Saw him in Clearwater on his farwell tour. It was beautiful..loving..sad..nostalgic and so happy I saw and heard him in person. God bless him and his family.

    12. Noel ONeill says:

      He will truly be missed. You can see him play in the background in the movie ” Baby The Rain Must Fall” behind Steve McQueen singing. We always loved Glen’s music thank God his music lives on and he will alway be gentle on our minds. R.I.P.

    13. Jesse Garnett says:

      Glen’s first gig after leaving Arkansas was in Kemah, Texas playing guitar for a guy named Ronnie McKinney. Glen played all up and down the keyboard and taught Ronnie how to play that way.
      Glen spent the summer living with Ronnie and spent that summer playing and swimming along with Dusty Carroll, a steel guitar player!
      Glen, Ronnie and Dusty stayed lifelong friends!

    14. TV Viewer says:

      Rest in peace Glen Campbell! Really enjoyed watching the Goodtime TV program, as well as the movie True Grit! A legend in his lifetime, with songs that will be heard for decades to come!

    15. SANDRA GREENWALD says:

      I was sadden to hear of Glen Campbell’s passing. We have to eradicate this disease. I grew up listening to his music and watched his last concert with his daughter. RIP Glen.

    16. Jeremy says:

      Quiet a lad to me

    17. H2K says:

      Glen was one of the best. I’ll miss him, but not his fantastic collection of music. A great singer, guitar player, and performer

    18. stlawrence says:

      Great guitarist, singer, performer, person.

    19. Ruth says:

      I just heard the Glen Campbell passed away on channel 7. That is so sad. I knew of course he was not good. May he RIP

    20. eddie willers says:

      His Wichita Lineman LP is a Desert Island Disc.

    21. Pat Caldwell says:

      Thank goodness, God is patient; He waited for you to accept Him and you did. R.I.P. sweet one. Your music will live for generations.

    22. Hester Adamson - Bounds says:

      I knew Glen when he would come to Houston and he would visit his older sister Billie. I would be there sometimes and some of his friends would come over and they would be in the living room playing. Billie and I would be in the kitchen listening and enjoying it all. Glen will be missed by the world. Great artist and person. I know that now he his with his family above and the reunion is beyond measure.

    23. Essess says:

      Didn’t Glen sort of revived Elvis’ career when he featured him on his good time show?

    24. I am shocked and extremely sad. Memories of watching him on the Goodtime Hour and the thrill hearing “Galveston”, “True Grit” or “Wichita Lineman” on the radio all come rushing back to me. Thanks for the memories, Glen. You will never be forgotten. R.I.P., sir.

    25. George Bugenis says:

      RIP Glen Campbell. You bore this terrible disease with dignity and courage.

    26. w. says:

      One correction: Campbell’s final solo album was “Adiós,” which came out earlier this year.

    27. Excellent article. Great artist who deserves to be recognized by current generations. Thanks, Variety.

    28. Galveston says:

      Soundtrack of my youth-Glen Campbell

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