In late 2008, GP associate editor Matt Blackett managed to get in-between Glen Campbell's daily golf game and interview him about his album, Meet Glen Campbell. The story ran in our January 2009 issue.
This was well before Campbell's brave but sad announcement in 2011 that he was battling Alzheimer's disease and would do a final album and tour.
We are reprinting Matt's discussion with the legend to provide an insight into a transcendent talent who was enjoying life, still making music, and could shred with the best of 'em. —Michael Molenda
Interview by Matt Blackett
We all know the Glen Campbell was a rhinestone cowboy. We know he was a lineman for the county. Students of pop history also know that he was a member of the famed Wrecking Crew, playing on classic recordings for Elvis, Sinatra, the Beach Boys, the Monkees, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, and too many more to name. Fewer people are aware that Campbell actually was a Beach Boy, touring with the group in the mid ’60s and filling the massive shoes of Brian Wilson himself. He had his own wildly successful TV show, and he singlehandedly put Ovation guitars on the map by playing them on that show. And, although he didn’t always get a chance to showcase them on his Grammy-winning hits, the guy has always possessed unreal chops. Spin just about any live recording of Campbell’s or YouTube his Good Time Hour variety show and you’ll be treated to blazing, head-spinning flatpicked lines that ran circles around anyone who shared space at the top of the charts with him.
After ruling the pop and country worlds and racking up 45 million in sales, you couldn’t blame the guy if he decided to hang it up and simply golf his way into the sunset. But Campbell is back with a new record, Meet Glen Campbell [Capitol], where he covers an eclectic batch of tunes by the likes of Green Day, Tom Petty, and the Foo Fighters, ably backed up by Jason Falkner, Wendy Melvoin, and Roger Manning, among others. And, although nothing can stand between Campbell and his daily golf game, he did take the time to discuss his current work, his past work, and why he still likes what he calls “take-off playin’.” He continues to get cards and letters from people he doesn’t even know.
How did this record come to be?
I was playing at one of those gambling places on the Colorado River. Julian Raymond, who produced the record, came down and said he wanted to do an album. I picked some of the songs—I had heard bits of them over the years—and Julian picked some too. We had a bunch of tunes. I could do another album of this sort of stuff because I really, really liked it.
You’ve always done your own versions of other people’s tunes. When you first heard the songs that ended up on this album, did you think, “I should record that song someday”?
No, it never occurred to me. But when I started playing the Green Day song, “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life),” I was really knocked out by it. That was true with all of the material.
How did you divide up the guitar parts? What kind of direction did you give to Jason Falkner and Wendy Melvoin?
I just let them play rather than telling them what to do. They’re great musicians. Julian picked the players and they were all amazing. I played rhythm on a lot of songs and I played a bass guitar solo. I really like the solo I play on “Good Riddance.” I think the intro to [Foo Fighters’] “Times Like These” is great. I didn’t play it, but it’s one of my favorite guitar parts on the album. We had a lot of nice instruments in there, but I don’t remember what I played on which song. I’ve been doing this so long now that, once a project is over, that stuff pretty much goes out of my head.
You gave the players on this record a lot of freedom. When you were coming up in the session ranks, did you get that kind of freedom?
They had things written out a lot of times, but since I couldn’t read notes they would write “Glen Solo” on the page and I would have freedom then.
You’d be tracking live in those days. What was the pressure like, knowing that if you made a mistake it would ruin the take for everyone?
It really never entered my mind. Everybody makes mistakes and there were a lot of mistakes made on those records.
What was it like to play on Elvis records?
It was really nice. I really enjoyed it because I was a big Elvis fan. Elvis was there during the sessions and I got to know him very well. He was a great guy.
What are some of your other favorite dates?
The Beach Boys Pet Sounds. I remember Brian working so hard. He was that way with everything—it was all perfect. You can play that album today and it’s still perfect. That session was me, Carol Kaye, Bill Pitman, and Tommy Tedesco.
Did you ever see a part in the studio that Tommy couldn’t handle?
No, never. He was such a good reader. I remember a Jan and Dean session where they put a chart in front of Tommy and he started playing it. It sounded really weird and the producer came over to look. He had put the chart on his stand upside down and Tommy was just playing it backwards. It cracked us all up. I miss him. It was always fun with him in the studio—a lot of joking and kidding going on.
After the Pet Sounds sessions, you toured with the Beach Boys. How did that come about?
Brian was sick or something and he couldn’t go out. Mike Love wanted to go out on the road and make money because I guess he was gambling some of it away. They called me the day before the tour. I said, “Sure, I can make it.” Then they asked if I had a bass. I said, “Bass? I’m a guitar player!” So I borrowed Brian’s bass and played it and tried to sing the high parts.
With no rehearsal?
Well, I had played on the songs so I knew the material. I had also sung with them in the studio on some of the cuts. Al Jardine was my little buddy—he still is. I would tell him on stage, “You gotta help me on these high parts. We need to switch off.” So we did. To this day, touring with the Beach Boys is the hardest thing I’ve ever done musically.
You’re a mean flatpicker and back in the day you used to really shred, especially live on tunes like “Classical Gas.” Who did you listen to early on for that kind of technical playing?
Django Reinhardt. Best guitar player that ever lived. He and Stephane Grapelli gave us some of the best playing I’ve ever heard, and they did that in the ’30s. He was a mad player. It inspired me. It really did make me want to play like that.
There aren’t any tunes on your latest record that showcase your chops. Do you still enjoy that kind of playing?
You mean “The Hokum” as it’s called? In country we’d say, “I’m playin’ ‘take off.’ I’m not playing rhythm anymore.” I do still like that kind of playing. It’s fun. I can tell that some of the licks I try to hit now have slowed down a hair, but it still sounds good to me.
Campbell's Final Single: "I'm Not Gonna Miss You"