The late, great Glen Campbell remains one of the most versatile talents in country music history. The Arkansas farm boy turned household name had the vocal talents, guitar picking skills, heartfelt charm and movie star looks to stand out among Nashville’s first wave of crossover stars in the late ’60s.
As the right man to introduce the public to the great compositions of Jimmy Webb and John Hartford, Campbell’s song selections proved to have more staying power than the hits of many other Grammy winners and country chart fixtures. Add on his talents as an interpreter of others’ hits, ranging from Buffy Sainte-Marie’s “Universal Soldier” to Green Day’s “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life),” and Campbell remained timelessly cool as popular styles changed.
From his time as a sought-after member of the legendary Wrecking Crew session musicians, including a stint as a fill-in Beach Boys member, to his public bout with Alzheimer’s, Campbell’s time in the public eye was marked by over 50 years of great songs recorded by one of his generation’s most gifted talents.
The following list unavoidably celebrates some pretty obvious picks. After all, it’s hard to argue that Campbell’s great run in the late ’60s and his ’70s return to form with “Rhinestone Cowboy” top any similar stints from his (or nearly anyone else’s) career.
10. “I Knew Jesus (Before He Was a Star)”
Although it lacks the staying power of his greatest hits, this answer to the Jesus Christ Superstar craze captures Campbell’s skill at sharing his faith through song. It’s the title track of a 1973 album that’s his most underrated from the Capitol Records years.
9. “True Grit”
In addition to hosting the Goodtime Hour at a time when variety television made national stars into global phenomenons, Campbell co-starred in a John Wayne Western. He also sang True Grit‘s memorable title track, proving both his acting chops and singing talents translated well to the big screen.
8. “Try a Little Kindness”
Even with its horns and slick production values, this song shows how the best country singers could hitch their wagons to the themes and tunes of the folk revival that helped popularize roots music for young rock ‘n’ rollers.
7. “Southern Nights”
Campbell’s most pop-accessible moment came in 1977 when he turned the whole nation onto one of Allen Toussaint’s great compositions. Country, with scant traces of funk and other popular sounds, sounds as uptown here as it would in the soon-to-come Urban Cowboy aftermath.
6. “Country Boy (You Got Your Feet in L.A.)”
This fantastic song from the Rhinestone Cowboy album seems to argue that Campbell never stopped being a country boy, even when personal issues and scathing rumors hogged tabloid headlines.
5. “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”
The top five here all define Campbell as a performer and frankly are interchangeable. Campbell’s greatest run of success included this 1967 Webb composition that Frank Sinatra himself considers an all-time great love song.
4. “Gentle on My Mind” (with or without Bobbie Gentry)
The brilliance of John Hartford got its largest platform when Campbell turned this tune into an era-defining country music hit. It previews the fleshed-out stories that great songwriters would roll out in the ’70s in reaction to formulaic and repetitive pop.
3. “Rhinestone Cowboy”
Campbell acknowledges the calculated glitz and thrilling crowd reactions sought by his Nudie suit-wearing predecessors and Hollywood pals in this career-reviving hit that maintains its mark on American culture.
2. “Wichita Lineman”
Many great country songs, brought to life by the vocal talents of Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard and others, tell of everyday feelings, fears and failures through the eyes of a common person. Here, Campbell and Webb capture love-sickness that, like the lineman’s work schedule, comes rain or shine.
Few studio creations from any genre match the near-perfect sound and feel of Campbell’s greatest song. Despite its main character being lonely because he’s in Vietnam, the period piece’s themes of homesickness and youthful love transcend time and place.