Glen Campbell’s cherished recording of Jimmy Webb’s ‘Wichita Lineman’ has been inducted into the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress. The honour has been announced today by Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden, who inducted the 1968 recording along with two dozen others into the Library’s class of 2019.
Audio treasures are inducted for preservation into the National Recording Registry because of their cultural, historic and aesthetic importance to the recorded sound heritage of the United States. Each year, recordings are selected that showcase the range and diversity of American recorded sound heritage, to increase preservation awareness.
“‘Wichita Lineman’ is the ultimate expression of the musical and spiritual bond between my husband Glen and his songwriting soulmate Jimmy Webb,” says the singer’s widow Kim Campbell. “Despite ‘Wichita Lineman’ being such an important song for Glen it was also one of his favourites and I know he’d be so thrilled and honoured to have his original recording preserved in the Library of Congress.”
Jimmy Webb added: “I’m humbled and, at the same time for Glen, I am extremely proud. I wish there was some way I could reach him to say, ‘Glen, you know they’re doing this. They are putting our music in a mountain — it will be preserved for all time.”
‘Wichita Lineman’ was the title song of Campbell’s 12th album which was then released by Capitol Records in November 1968. The vocal stylist and much in-demand guitarist was, at the time, becoming a beloved all-round entertainer, television star, film actor and crossover sensation.
Driving the main road in Oklahoma
Campbell had enjoyed immense success the year before with Webb’s ‘By The Time I Get To Phoenix,’ which won two Grammy Awards. The singer asked the songwriter to write another geographical song as a follow-up, and Webb took inspiration from an indelible memory from a drive through rural Oklahoma. He saw a solitary lineman working on one of an endless line of telephone poles. He imagined the loneliness and longing that such a man might feel.
On deadline, Webb delivered a version that he felt was unfinished, and told Campbell’s producer and arranger Al De Lory that he needed to add a third verse. But without his knowledge, Campbell — who said he cried when he heard the song because he was homesick — recorded it immediately, completing it with a bass guitar interlude.
Initially, Webb assumed that Campbell didn’t like the song, since he had received no feedback. When he ran into the vocalist some weeks later, he was was surprised to learn that he had indeed recorded it.
The sound of ‘Wichita Lineman,’ with its bass prelude to sweeping, orchestral strings, tremolo guitar and Campbell’s plaintive vocals, was and remains unique. It was produced by De Lory and recorded with the celebrated Los Angeles studios musicians the Wrecking Crew, featuring Al Casey, James Burton, Carol Kaye, Don Bagley, Jim Gordon and De Lory himself.
Country, pop, adult contemporary acclaim
The single topped the US country and adult contemporary charts and reached No. 3 on Billboard‘s Hot 100, selling more than a million copies in the US and becoming an international smash. It received Grammy nominations including Record of the Year and Best Male Contemporary Pop Vocal Performance. The 45 was also nominated for Single of the Year at the Academy of Country Music Award.
Such huge acclaim helped Campbell’s album of the same name to US sales of more than two million copies. It became his first No. 1 album on the pop chart, spending five weeks at the summit.
Covers from Johnny Cash to James Taylor
The song, which was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2000, has gone on to be covered, either in the studio or on stage, by hundreds of artists. They include Guns N’ Roses, James Taylor, Johnny Cash, José Feliciano, Keith Urban, King Curtis, Kool & The Gang, the Meters, Ray Charles, R.E.M., Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66, Smokey Robinson, Toby Keith, Tom Jones, Wayne Newton and many others.
Following Campbell’s death in 2017, Webb performed ‘Wichita Lineman’ with Little Big Town as a tribute to the great entertainer during the 51st Annual Country Music Association Awards. You can watch a curated YouTube playlist of some of the best performances of the song, by Campbell and by some of the artists mentioned.