Great Songwriters on Great Songs, Diane Warren on “Wichita Lineman” by Jimmy Webb

Also on Diane’s debut album as an artist, The Cave Sessions Vol. 1, feat. Dion, Mary J. Blige & others, coming in 2021.

With the same linguistic economy she brings to songs, Diane Warren explained why this song by Jimmy Webb is at the top of her great song list. She crystallized the essential truth at the heart of all great songs, and certainly those of Jimmy Webb: not a great lyric or melody alone, but the marriage of a great melody and great lyric. For it’s a perfect, dream marriage. A melody of great enduring beauty wed to a beautifully-detailed, imagistic elegiac lyric. Like a great song, her answer shows that seventeen verses aren’t needed when you have the essential, undeniable truth beautifully expressed.

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Diane Warren

Like the many famous songs by Jimmy Webb, the songs of Diane Warren are more famous than the songwriter. Not in the songwriting community, of course. But so many of her songs are so closely linked to beloved artists, and their fans presume that the artist wrote them. Those beloved, iconic artists include Cher, Lady Gaga, Beyonce, Celine Dion, Toni Braxton, Aerosmith and so many others.

Diane’s been nominated, remarkably, twelve times for the Oscar for Best Song, most recently this year with the beautiful “I’m Standing With You” from Breakthrough, sung by Chrissy Metz.

With Webb, she shares the distinction of writing both words and music, unlike most songwriters who have created so many hits. It’s Jimmy’s perfect marriage of words and music in this song that she said is the foundation of the song’s enduring greatness.

Unlike Webb, however, who has released many great solo albums as an artist, Diane has never made an album of her own. That is, until now. She announced this week that she is going to release her debut album as an artist next year.

It’s entitled Diane Warren: The Cave Sessions Vol. 1, and is scheduled for release in 2021.

“I am writing new songs all the time,” she wrote about this new album, “and I really think I’m writing my best songs right now.” Surrounding herself with great music stars as she’s done through the decades, she said that she’s joined here by Dion, John Legend, Mary J. Blige, Jason Derulo, Ty Dolla $ign, Jhene Aiko and LP.

“Wichita Lineman” was originally recorded by Glen Campbell, backed by the Wrecking Crew, in 1968 and became a major hit. It has subsequently been recorded by a remarkably immense and diverse range of artists and groups, including Ray Charles, The Dells, Freedy Johnston, O.C. Smith, Willie Hutch, The Meters, These Animal Men, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, James Taylor, R.E.M., Johnny Cash, Tom Jones, Johnny Mathis, Robert Goulet, Andy Williams, Bobby Goldsboro, Engelbert Humperdinck, Wayne Newton, Tony Joe White, Urge Overkill and many others. Many many. 

In an interview conducted with Webb back in 1988, I asked him, in regard to this song and others, what led him to write such rich, finely-etched and detailed lyrics, creating a sense of place and time usually found only in novels.

“When I think about those days,” he said of his childhood in Texas and Oklahoma, “the only way I can imagine them is sort of with a picture. I can see a house by a road. That’s the only way I can recall it really. I was never a Wichita lineman myself. Not at all. It’s an image; it’s a picture.”

“I learned that way of expressing myself,” he said, “really from other writers. I’d be the first to say that Lennon and McCartney had a tremendous effect on me when they came on the scene. And songs like `Penny Lane’ had such a cinematic impact on me that that was something I wanted to do.”

“Paul Simon as well,” said Jimmy. “He is a very evocative writer. He conjures up all kinds of beautiful and surreal images.

“I would like to think that sometimes I do that,” he said. “But it’s a tricky business. Sometimes I don’t make it, either. I’m in there swinging.  I really want to believe that I communicate with people who are listening to it. I really do.”  

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The Wichita Maestro, Jimmy Webb. “It’s a tricky business…. I’m in there swinging.”

Diane Warren on
“Wichita Lineman” by Jimmy Webb:

“All of Jimmy Webb’s songs,  especially `Wichita Lineman’ touch me so deeply.

“It’s the notes  and the words. but more than anything, it’s the marriage of the two; if either the music or the words is lame, the song is not going to work.

In `Wichita Lineman,’  besides having an absolutely gorgeous melody, you can see the whole picture: the guy up on the telephone pole; the lonely, empty, desolate road; the trucks going by. It’s one of those songs that talks to me, and that’s the reason it endures.”

“Wichita Lineman”
Words & Music by Jimmy Webb

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

I know I need a small vacation
But it don’t look like rain
And if it snows that stretch down south
Won’t ever stand the strain

You know I need you more than want you,
And I want you for all time
And the Wichita lineman is still on the line

And I need you more than want you,
And I want you for all time
And the Wichita lineman is still on the line

© Universal Music Publishing Group

Warren & Webb; ASCAP Pop Music Awards, 2003


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