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Country Rewind: The Story Behind Glen Campbell's 'Wichita Lineman'

In 1968, songwriter Jimmy Webb was riding high from the success of "By the Time I Get to Phoenix," which Glen Campbell had taken to No. 2 on the country charts the year before. Now the Rhinestone Cowboy wanted Webb to write another song just for him.

"They called me and said, 'Can you write us a song about a town?'" Webb said in a BBC Radio 2 documentary.

Despite being hesitant to write another geographical tune, Webb was struck by an image from his childhood, driving by endless telephone poles on a rural stretch of road. The imagery of telephone wires against the desolate landscape in the middle of nowhere, inspired Webb to write the first lines of "Wichita Lineman": I am a lineman for the county and I drive the main road, searching in the sun for another overload. 

"In the heat of summer, with the heat rising off the road, the telephone poles gradually materialise out of this far, distant perspective and rush towards you," Webb told the BBC in 2017. "And then, as it happened, I suddenly looked up at one of these telephone poles and there was a man on top, talking on a telephone."

Webb never expected a song about a lonely, blue collar lineman in rural America to become a smash success and a crossover pop hit. He was still still struggling with the last verse when he sent the unfinished song off to Campbell. Campbell recognized what he had and filled in the "missing" last verse with an epic and now-classic bass guitar solo.

On the song, Campbell is backed by The Wrecking Crew, a collective of Los Angeles session musicians who appeared on thousands of hits in the '60s and '70s, including "Rhinestone Cowboy." Featured on the recording are Al Casey, James Burton and Carol Kaye on guitar, Don Bagley on bass, Jim Gordon on drums and Al De Lory on piano. De Lory also produced "Lineman," along with several Campbell classics, including "Gentle On My Mind" and "Galveston."

"Wichita Lineman" has been called the "first existential country song." What better time to be introspective than when isolated atop a utility pole? You can actually hear the narrator's loneliness and desire as he sings the unforgettable line, "I need you more than want you, and I want you for all time/ And the Wichita Lineman is still on the line." 

"Wichita Lineman" is a certified classic. Rolling Stone named the song No. 195 on its 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. Earlier this year, the song was inducted into the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress.

Read More: Glen Campbell + Kim Campbell: A Love Story in Sickness and in Health

The song hit No. 1 on Nov. 30, 1968. The song has been covered from everyone from Johnny Cash to R.E.M., but Campbell's velvety vocal remains the essential recording. The singer called "Lineman" his favorite out of all the songs he'd cut.

Campbell was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease in 2011. The documentary film Glen Campbell: I'll Be Me follows Campbell and his family in the days after his diagnosis. Campbell wrote and recorded the Grammy-winning "I'm Not Gonna Miss You" about his battle with Alzheimer's in 2013. After a lengthy battle with the disease, the country music legend passed away in 2017.

Ed. note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that "Wichita Lineman" was inspired by Washita County, Oklahoma. We regret the error.

'Wichita Lineman' Lyrics:

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

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