Behind The Song: Glen Campbell, “Wichita Lineman”

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Imagine pitching this song idea in 1968: There’s this guy who works on telephone poles in the middle of Kansas. He’s really devoted to his job. Rain or shine, he’s committed to preventing system overloads. It’s really lonely work, and he misses his girlfriend. Does this sound like a hit to you?

When Jimmy Webb wrote the first lines of “Wichita Lineman”…

I am a lineman for the county and I drive the main road
Searchin’ in the sun for another overload
I hear you singin’ in the wire, I can hear you through the whine
And the Wichita Lineman is still on the line

… not only did he not think he had a surefire hit, he didn’t even think the song was finished. An inauspicious beginning for a song that sold millions of records for Glen Campbell, has been recorded by everyone from Johnny Cash to James Taylor to R.E.M., and appears on several lists of the greatest songs of all time.

In late 1967 Jimmy was just about the hottest songwriter in L.A., based on two consecutive monster hits: The Fifth Dimension’s “Up, Up And Away,” and Glen Campbell’s “By The Time I Get To Phoenix.” “Phoenix” had been on the charts for six months, although Jimmy and Glen still hadn’t met.

“For all we know, ‘Phoenix’ could have been a one-off thing,” Jimmy told me recently. “Glen might never have recorded another song of mine.” They finally met at a jingle session. Soon after that date, the phone rang. It was Glen, calling from the studio. “He said, ‘Can you write me a song about a town?’” Jimmy recalls. “And I said, ‘Well, I don’t know … let me work on it.’ And he said, ‘Well, just something geographical.’

“He and (producer) Al DeLory were obviously looking for a follow-up to ‘Phoenix.’ And I remember writing ‘Wichita Lineman’ that afternoon. That was a song I absolutely wrote for Glen.”

It was the first time he had written a song expressly for another artist. But had he conceived any part of “Wichita” before that call?

“Not really,” Jimmy says. “I mean I had a lot of ‘prairie gothic’ images in my head. And I was writing about the common man, the blue-collar hero who gets caught up in the tides of war, as in ‘Galveston,’ or the guy who’s driving back to Oklahoma because he can’t afford a plane ticket (‘Phoenix’). So it was a character that I worked with in my head. And I had seen a lot of panoramas of highways and guys up on telephone wires … I didn’t want to write another song about a town, but something that would be in the ballpark for him.”

So even though it was written specifically for Glen, he still wanted it to be a ‘character’ song?

“Well, I didn’t want it to be about a rich guy!” he laughs. “I wanted it to be about an ordinary fellow. Billy Joel came pretty close one time when he said ‘Wichita Lineman’ is ‘a simple song about an ordinary man thinking extraordinary thoughts.’ That got to me; it actually brought tears to my eyes. I had never really told anybody how close to the truth that was.

“What I was really trying to say was, you can see someone working in construction or working in a field, a migrant worker or a truck driver, and you may think you know what’s going on inside him, but you don’t. You can’t assume that just because someone’s in a menial job that they don’t have dreams … or extraordinary concepts going around in their head, like ‘I need you more than want you; and I want you for all time.’ You can’t assume that a man isn’t a poet. And that’s really what the song is about.”

He wasn’t certain they would go for it. “In fact, I thought they hadn’t gone for it,” he says. “They kept calling me back every couple of hours and asking if it was finished. I really didn’t have the last verse written. And finally I said, ‘Well, I’m gonna send it over, and if you want me to finish it, I’ll finish it.’

“A few weeks later I was talking to Glen, and I said, ‘Well I guess Wichita Lineman didn’t make the cut.’ And Glen said, ‘Oh yeah! We recorded that!’ And I said, ‘Listen, I didn’t really think that song was finished …’ And he said, ‘Well it is now!’”

In a recent interview, Glen said that he and DeLory filled in what might have been a third verse with a guitar solo, one now considered iconic. He still can recall playing it on a DanElectro six-string bass guitar belonging to legendary L.A. bass player and Wrecking Crew member Carol Kaye. It remains Glen’s favorite of all his songs.

“Wichita Lineman” can serve as ‘Exhibit A’ in any demonstration for songwriters of the principle of ‘less is more.’ On paper, it’s just two verses, each one composed of two rhymed couplets. The record is a three-minute wonder: Intro. First Verse. Staccato telegraph-like musical device. Second verse. No chorus. Guitar solo. Repeat last two lines of second verse (“and I need you more than want you …”). Fade. There is no B section, much less a C section.

Why did such an unlikely song become a standard? There are many reasons, but here’s one: the loneliness of that solitary prairie figure is not just present in the lyric, it’s built into the musical structure. Although the song is nominally in the key of F, after the tonic chord is stated in the intro it is never heard again in its pure form, with the root in the bass. The melody travels through a series of haunting changes that are considerably more sophisticated than the Top 40 radio norms of that era. The song never does get “home” again to the tonic – not in either verse, nor in the fade-out. This gorgeous musical setting suggests subliminally what the lyric suggests poetically: the lonely journeyman, who remains suspended atop that telephone pole, against that desolate prairie landscape, yearning for home.

Comments

comments

12 COMMENTS

  1. I like your writing. It is very lucid, flowing and informative. And I think the reasons you gave for why this odd little song, Wichita Lineman, became a hit and then continued on as a standard, have a lot of merit. I am copy-and-pasting the last couple paragraphs into my songwriting diary. Thanks for the time and thought you put into this piece of writing.

  2. This song starts out in F, as you say. And then it does not resolve back to the tonic after the intro, altho there is an odd F chord on “County” and “but it don’t look like.” Anyway, the reason I am writing a second post on this topic is because by the end of the song, after all the tension in the BbMaj7 and C9, the song really, REALLY wants to resolve to D major, which isn’t even contained in the key of F. There is weirdness here that is yet to be unraveled.

  3. Inspiring story. Especially with today’s isolation of people “communicating” through technology, there is too much distance between people, even as we sit physically near each other in a restaurant, on a bus or at the office – no real connection.

  4. Though I linked this–I hadn’t read it through. The song has a killer yearning feel to it, that I can’t let go (much like a lot of the Last Unicorn sdtrk)

  5. Thank you so much for this article. “Wichita Lineman” is one of my all-time favorite songs, and I can’t listen to it without having tears in my eyes. I never knew that Jimmy actually wrote it for Glen Campbell…thank God for them both. By the way, I share the wonderful feeling that was spoken about men out there doing all the dirty work. I don’t know how to honor them enough, but a song like this, one of the most beautiful ones ever written, goes a long way toward doing that, I think.

  6. The lineman loves the girl with a wholehearted and gentlemanly love, but she has married someone else. The giant landscape he works in is outdone by the immense emptiness inside him. There is a cruel irony in his job being to keep everyone else connected when he himself is utterly cut off, isolated and alone in the world. You can sense the defeat in all this. A strong, honorable man doing his best to keep going when his life is basically gone. He is somewhere between a man and a ghost. Small wonder that people should see a tragic weirdness in the story.

  7. Mr. Morrison, I hope you read these comments. It’s a rare and precious thing to see a piece of music crit that actually discusses the subject in musical terms (cf.: that last paragraph there.) Keep it up!

  8. Wow, how pleased I am to see how this song has touched others much the same way it has touched me. I was only thirteen years old the first time I heard Glen Campbell sing it on the Goodtime Hour. My imagery of the song will harmonize with others in some ways and conflict in others, but I’d like to share it. I guess it’s something I’d only want to share with someone who loved the song, too.

    As with others, the song conjures images for me of the intense loneliness and detachment of the lineman from the object of his love, his wife. The haunting and ethereal tones of the instrumentation captures the sounds of the electronic world that surrounds him.

    For me, when the lineman says, “I hear you singing in the wire, I can hear you though the whine,” he’s telling her that she permeates everything he does up on that pole. In fact, his love and devotion to her is the very force that holds him on that pole. This difficult and dangerous job–that pulls him away from her at the worst of times–is his way of taking care of her and securing their life together. The job is an expression of love.

    Not that the song is in any sense religious, but I’m reminded of when someone once said that Christ’s love for mankind held him on up on His pole, not the nails. This lineman is up on his pole, sacrificing himself to secure a life with the woman he loves.

  9. My thought about this song was always that the Wichita Lineman liked his job well enough and that at some point while he was out there on the road, he was realizing how much he really loved and missed his lady. He has not been ready to commit because he says he is “still on the line” – not jumping to either side, but in the middle. And now he has started to realize that it’s commitment time! “I need you more than want you, and I want you for all time.” Yeah!

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