Music

Glen Campbell, ‘The Rhinestone Cowboy’ Who Spoke to the Heartland, Dies at 81

Country music legend Glen Campbell has died following an extended battle with Alzheimer’s Disease. He was 81.

According to a statement from his family, Campbell died at an Alzheimer’s care facility in Nashville on Tuesday morning.

“It is with the heaviest of hearts that we announce the passing of our beloved husband, father, grandfather, and legendary singer and guitarist, Glen Travis Campbell, at the age of 81, following his long and courageous battle with Alzheimer’s disease,” read the statement.

Campbell very publicly battled Alzheimer’s disease for the last six years of his life. In March, his family moved him full time to a care facility in Nashville.

Before his disease progressed, Campbell launched a farewell tour immortalized in the 2014 documentary I’ll Be Me. That film earned a Grammy award and Academy Award nomination for “I’m Not Gonna Miss You,” the last song Campbell ever recorded.

In a beautiful send-off for fans, Campbell also recorded his final album Adiós after his diagnosis. He released it in June, becoming his 18th top-10 album.

Campbell enjoyed a career spanning six decades in which he sold nearly 50 million records. He also became one of the most successful country artists to bridge the pop divide in the 1960s and introduced new audiences to the country genre.

A Master of the Guitar

Glen Campbell
Kris Connor/Getty Images

Campbell grew up poor in Arkansas as the seventh of 12 children. The child of sharecroppers, Campbell got his first guitar when he was only four years old. He showed incredible promise, and just a few years later Campbell earned money as an act and radio talent.

Eventually, Campbell dropped out of school and traveled around as a guitarist in his uncle’s band. He soon earned work as a session guitarist, eventually moving to Los Angeles. By the early 1960s, he had become a member of the world-class session band The Wrecking Crew. Campbell  played guitar on tons of hits, including Elvis Presley’s “Viva Las Vegas” and Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried.” In 1964, he even filled in for Brian Wilson and toured as a member of the Beach Boys.

His experience in the pop world eventually influenced his own music, which led to a pop country renaissance often referred to as “countrypolitan.”

 

Campbell’s own successes began to flourish in the late 1960s. His single “Gentle On My Mind” in 1967 helped establish him in the country world, and follow-up single “By The Time I Get To Phoenix” became one of the biggest successes of his career.

Those songs eventually won him four Grammy Awards in both country and pop categories. The album By The Time I Get To Phoenix remains only one of very few country albums to with the Grammy for Album Of The Year.

Campbell ultimately parlayed that huge bump in popularity into a TV hosting gig, too. He filled in as the summer host during the 1968 season of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, which earned him his own show.

The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour ran from 1969 to 1972 on CBS and helped establish him as a household name. Campbell’s amiable demeanor and long list of music industry connections meant his show felt like a positive, music-heavy place for families to go during otherwise difficult current events.

The show also helped launch the careers of several comedians and writers, including Steve Martin. In addition to his television show, Campbell enjoyed a brief career in about a dozen different films throughout his life.

The Rhinestone Cowboy

Despite already being a four-time Grammy winner, successful television host and guitar virtuoso, Campbell’s biggest was yet to come. His 1975 song “Rhinestone Cowboy” became probably his most remembered song.

The song became one of few country tunes to ever top the Billboard Hot 100 chart, in addition to the country chart and a handful of international charts. It was a top 5 hit across the globe, even making it to No. 1 in bizarre markets like Yugoslavia.

“Rhinestone Cowboy” also epitomized the pop country movement of the 1970s and became something of a lightning rod. In what seems like an issue consistently facing country music, some argued the pop production of the song and widespread appeal lessened its “country cred” compared to other artists, including the rising “outlaw” country scene. Of course, at the end of the day, none of that mattered. “Rhinestone Cowboy” is a classic, career-defining song, even in one as illustrious as Campbell’s.

A Figure of Strength

Though he enjoyed plenty of success, Glen Campbell certainly didn’t escape the excess of the industry, either. He suffered from alcohol and cocaine addiction in the 1980s, battling drinking issues into the early 2000s. He eventually cleaned up and continued performing.

In early 2011, doctors diagnosed Campbell with Alzheimer’s disease. He chose to go on a farewell tour with his children in which he played more than 150 shows. The inspiring tour was captured entirely on film for the documentary I’ll Be Me. Throughout the tour, Campbell continually struggled with his worsening conditions, but every time he started playing music, he performed the songs like clockwork.

His very public battle with the disease helped to open up additional dialogue surrounding Alzheimer’s. It also inspired the I’ll Be Me Alzheimer’s Fund and his wife Kim Campbell’s CareLiving, an organization dedicated to helping those who give care to ill family members and patients. 

In 2012, Campbell received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. He received a similar honor from the Academy of Country Music in 2016.

Glen Campbell was married four times and is survived by his eight children.

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Glen Campbell, ‘The Rhinestone Cowboy’ Who Spoke to the Heartland, Dies at 81