The Hustles of Country Stardom and the Meaning Behind Glen Campbell’s 1975 Hit “Rhinestone Cowboy”

By the mid-1960s songwriter Larry Weiss and Scott English had become known for their songs “Bend Me, Shape Me,” which was first recorded by the Outsiders in 1966 and became a hit a year later when it was released by the American Breed and hit No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100. Weiss and English also co-wrote the Attack’s “Hi Ho Silver Lining,” which later became a hit in 1967 as Jeff Beck‘s debut solo single.

In 1974, Weiss released his debut album Black and Blue Suite. The opening track “Rhinestone Cowboy” didn’t hit the charts in the U.S. yet had some movement in Australia, where it peaked at No. 17. Later that year, Glen Campbell heard the song on the radio and was immediately drawn to its cadence and story.

Campbell bought the song on cassette and listened to it on repeat, and learned it, before bringing it to Al Coury at Capitol Records. Coury also had a song he wanted Campbell to hear, which was also Weiss’ “Rhinestone Cowboy.” 

“I heard the song on KNX FM [Los Angeles] and said ‘Hey I’d like to record that song,” said Campbell during an appearance on the The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson in 1975. “I found ‘By the Time I Get to Phoenix’ that way. I found it on an old Johnny Rivers album—and the same for “Wichita Lineman’ and ‘Galveston’ … I heard a Don Ho record on it.”

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‘A Star-Spangled Rodeo’

Weiss’ lyrics follow a country singer who has paid his dues and is ready to live a more lavish life, like a rhinestone cowboy. By the time Campbell released his 28th album, Rhinestone Cowboy, in 1975, he had already been performing for more than 20 years. Campbell started out playing honky tonks in Albuquerque, New Mexico in the 1950s before moving to Los Angeles in 1960 and releasing his debut Big Bluegrass Special with the Green River Boys in 1962,

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Before “Rhinestone Cowboy,” Campbell had a previous pop hit with “Turn Around, Look at Me” in 1961, and he continued releasing more hits, from “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” and “Gentle on My Mind” in 1967—the latter which served as the theme of his TV show, The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour and won four Grammy Awards—to his Jimmy Webb-penned classic “Wichita Lineman” in 1968 and “Galveston” (1969), among others.

When he recorded “Rhinestone Cowoy” Campbell was nothing like the more glossed-up vision of a country star portrayed in Weiss’ lyrics—Riding out on a horse in a star-spangled rodeoGetting cards and letters from people I don’t even know—yet related to the song, and his recounts of the struggles that face a singer and songwriter who hustled for years before they become a rhinestone cowboy.

I’ve been walkin’ these streets so long
Singin’ the same old song
I know every crack in these dirty sidewalks of Broadway
Where hustle’s the name of the game
And nice guys get washed away like the snow in the rain

There’s been a load of compromising
On the road to my horizon
But I’m gonna be where the lights are shinin’ on me

Like a rhinestone cowboy
Riding out on a horse in a star-spangled rodeo
Like a rhinestone cowboy
Getting cards and letters from people I don’t even know
And offers comin’ over the phone

Well, I really don’t mind the rain
And the smile can hide all the pain
But you’re down when you’re ridin’ the train that’s takin’ the long way
And I dream of the things I’ll do
With a subway token and a dollar tucked inside my shoe

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Three Charts Topped

“Glen doesn’t mince words,” said “Rhinestone Cowboy” co-producer Dennis Lambert. “He either feels something and jumps right on it or he doesn’t. He thought the song was great. We didn’t copy Larry’s version but took the essence of it, which was right on the money.”

Campbell’s version became an international hit and shot to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, the Country, and the Adult Contemporary charts, marking the first time a song topped all three since Jimmy Dean’s “Big Bad John” in 1961.

Since its released, “Rhinestone Cowboy” has been covered by more than 100 times, with recordings by Loretta Lynn, Wayne Newton, Charley Pride, David Hasselhoff, Soul Asylum, Radiohead, Belle and Sebastian, and more.

Photo: David Redfern/Redferns

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