Fans outside the realm of the guitar intelligentsia aren’t really aware of Brad Paisley’s formidable six-string prowess until they see him in concert — something that was also true of Glen Campbell. Hours after the 81-year-old legend’s passing was announced, Variety spoke with Paisley to discuss how the late star helped prompt his early desire to be a triple-threat who could also excel in singing, guitar-slinging, and… geniality.
You’re so historically minded that you can cite dozens of influences from country’s classic era. But there can’t be a lot of influences when it comes to major-league singer/guitarists.
Well, [Campbell] was the first guitar virtuoso superstar, wasn’t he? You could argue Buck Owens, but Buck would have been the first to say he turned over the reins on the lead playing to [his legendary guitarist] Don Rich. So Glen was the guy, when it came to: Sing, take your guitar solo, sing, take your guitar solo. He was the motivation, in many ways. It was like, that’s what I want to do: sing a little bit, tell a couple jokes, and play a bunch of solos and entertain people. And nobody did it better than Glen Campbell.
Even today, you’re one of just a few in that lineage.
It was so important to me to be a guitar player and a singer at the same time that I was really intensely interested in any of the artists that pull that off. And like you say, there weren’t very many — there are hardly any in other formats, either. In rock and pop and even jazz, there are just not that many lead guitar player/singers, and we have way more than our fair share in country music. I think we’re the format really that has the most — other than blues, which almost doesn’t count! That’s just what blues is.
The average person probably doesn’t think, “Glen Campbell, guitar virtuoso.” That wasn’t the major part of his presence, even though musicians know.
You’d have to see him in concert to realize it, because his records weren’t typically heavily focused on the guitar. Then again, you think about even “Wichita Lineman,” and that iconic, very simple tic-tac guitar part—it’s just so cool. He was so tasteful with it. Of course, he played on sessions; he played on Sinatra records, and he was so renowned as a guitar player within the musician community. I saw him in concert, which I did many times… I met him when I opened for him at the Capitol Music Hall (in Wheeling, West Virginia) when I was young. We got to hang a little bit here and there over the years. One time was at Mohegan Sun Casino (in Connecticut). I was playing in the arena, and he was playing in the theater across the way, so he came over and played the encore with me, just jamming on the guitar. This was before Alzheimer’s took any effect. What I was always struck by, when you would go to a concert, was how heavily the guitar became this third way he entertained. He was great at talking to audiences. He was so charismatic — it probably came from hosting TV shows and even acting. And he was such a singer. That voice was so velvet. Who could dislike Glen Campbell’s voice? Then there’s this guitar factor, where, live, he played all over the place, and ad-libbed. As tasteful and understated as the guitars were on his albums, he came at live performances from a place of: Okay, now I’m really going to surprise you with the guitar. And that was when people would see: Wow, was he ever a genius.
And that never left him, by the way. I saw him play one of his farewell tour shows in California, in a small theater, when he already had Alzheimer’s. And other than a few times when he would turn to Ashley (his daughter) and say “Didn’t we already do this?,” he would not miss a beat. He remembered everything about the songs. And not only that, but what struck me was, he would go off on a solo on something like “Gentle on My Mind” and he would improvise. Here’s a man who has trouble remembering whether they did the song already, but then he would just go nuts and do these crazy scales and not miss a beat. It was very inspiring.
Was there anything in particular about his presence you found appealing?
Yes. I didn’t know him as well as I would have liked to have, but it was a mind-blowing thing just being around him. He was a ray of sunshine in any room he walked in. I’ve heard the stories, as you have too, of the dark side of him (in earlier years). It’s a tale as old as time in our format, the way that affects and changes a person. But the guy I was always around was just absolutely joy. He was truly a sweetheart. And charismatic: he would walk in and command the room without trying, and without being pretentious in any way.
His public persona was so unfailingly upbeat, and then he could also do the loneliest songs you ever heard, and for those three minutes you believe it, and then it ends and he’s Mr. Cheerful again.
Absolutely. He was able to summon a twinkle in his eye at any time, I think, and like you say, he could turn that off and probably pull from incredible personal experience when he wanted to go dark. But it was simply a switch to go back to light and happy and joyful.
One thing that was really neat, as he did this really brave goodbye tour… I remember asking Kim (Campbell, Glen’s wife), “How is he today?” And she’s like, “Oh, he’s happy as a lark. He is forgetting more and more, and he’s forgetting who some people are, and the disease is progressing. But he’s sort of happy.” Which is the opposite of my grandmother; in the early stage, Alzheimer’s put her through a dark phase. And the same with Kim’s mom — my Kim (actress Kimberly Williams-Paisley), her mom passed away of Alzheimer’s last year. Her mom was really miserable with it, especially in the beginning, and, you know, couldn’t have done a goodbye tour of any kind.
So you really have a lot of up-close experience with Alzheimer’s.
Yeah, it has surrounded our family like the Dothraki (from “Game of Thrones”). But the fact that the disease brought this joy out in Glen sort of speaks volumes as to who he was, I think, because I think he was a very happy person inherently… It affects everybody differently. I’m sure that doctors will study that farewell tour and try to see why was he able to still improvise and still play so just beautifully on the guitar, when he didn’t recognize his own daughter? That stuff is sort of the last to go, somehow… I’m glad his long goodbye has come to an end at this point. I’m glad that he has gone on to somewhere better. You leave a long time before you go with this disease.