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Like A 'Rhinestone Cowboy:' Glen Campbell's Life In One Song

Music | June 30, 2018

Singer Glen Campbell performs onstage in July 1974. (Photo by (Photo by Donaldson Collection/Getty Images)

The late Glen Campbell's "Rhinestone Cowboy," released in 1975, is the late country singer's biggest ever hit, and it might also be the song he identified with the most on a personal level. With lyrics about "a load of compromising" and the desire to be "where the lights are shinin' on me," it's a song of career frustration and hope. It was a familiar story for Glen Campbell, who'd achieved fame with songs like "Galveston" and "Wichita Lineman," but was in a rut by the mid-'70s.

"I thought it was my autobiography set to song," he recalled. 

He'd been to the top, he'd lived the country-star life in the limelight -- indeed, "like a rhinestone cowboy" -- but longed to return. The song, a huge hit worldwide, was just the vehicle he needed.

It's fairly amazing that lyrics written by a songwriter named Larry Weiss, whom Campbell had never met, struck such a nerve and seemed so revflective of Campbell's own life experiences. Weiss's version of the song had been released and had flopped, and Weiss was considering giving up on music and going into the furniture business around the time Campbell was discovering his personal connection to "Rhinestone Cowboy." Just how "autobiographical" were Weiss's lyrics? Let's just say that, line by line, you can see elements of Campbell's life story pretty clearly. Starting from the beginning, with the opening lyric about trudging through the same familiar streets without seeming to get anywhere...

'I've Been Walkin' These Streets So Long, Singin' The Same Old Song'

Drummer Hal Blaine and Glen Campbell at a Wrecking Crew session, photo by Denny Tedesco. Source: bestclassicbands.com

Glen Campbell was a naturally gifted musician, but personal fame didn't come early. He was in his mid-20s when he moved to Los Angeles in 1960, and got a job writing songs at a music publisher while also working as a session musician. He joined up with a group of players who became fairly legendary as the Wrecking Crew, backing all manner of performers on big hits. Campbell contributed guitar to "Strangers In The Night" by Frank Sinatra, "Be My Baby" by the Ronettes, "Surf City" by Jan and Dean, "I'm A Believer" by the Monkees, and "Viva Las Vegas" by Elvis Presley. By 1963, his singing and playing had appeared on 586 songs, some recorded under his own name but the vast majority as a session player or singer. He played on a few Beach Boys tracks, and toured with them in 1964 and 1965. He was in Los Angeles for nearly 7 years, trying to launch the solo career we're now so familiar with, but having little success.

'There's Been A Load Of Compromisin' On The Road To My Horizon'

Glen Campbell's 'Wichita Lineman' LP, released 1968. Source: Amazon.com

Doing session work on hits for a variety of artists in different genres was a legit career -- but for Arkansas-born Campbell, it didn't feel like his destiny. The music he was recording under his own name, which was generally unsuccessful, was country. Glen Campbell wanted to be a country star -- backing Sinatra and touring with the Beach Boys weren't bad gigs, but they weren't Glen. As it happens, Campbell was 30 years old when he finally scored a country hit, "Burning Bridges," which made it into the top 20 of the country music chart in 1967. 

Before he knew it, the dues he'd paid playing on other people's hits were paying off in a hurry. He was still playing with the Wrecking Crew -- but now they were the backing band and his name was the one listed at the top of the albums and singles. In 1967, "Gentle On My Mind" made it to #30 on the country chart, and "By The Time I Get To Phoenix" made it to #2. In 1968, Campbell scored two #1 country hits, "I Wanna Live" and "Wichita Lineman." The latter made it to #3 on the main US pop chart, and has ever since reaped acclaim as one of the greatest country songs ever recorded. The 1969 single "Galveston" became his third country #1 and remained one of his signature songs throughout his career.

'I'm Gonna Be Where The Lights Are Shinin' On Me'

Glen Campbell with Cher on 'The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour.' Source: Reddit

Glen Campbell had vaulted to stardom -- and not just as a singer, songwriter and guitarist. In January 1969, he made his TV hosting debut on The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour, one of many variety shows that flourished in the era. The program stayed on the air through 1972, while Campbell continued to place songs on the U.S. country and pop charts. Over the course of his career, he accumulated 12 gold albums, four platinum albums and one double-platinum album.

In 1970, Campbell was nominated for a Golden Globe award for his acting on his variety show. He was nominated for another Golden Globe that year, as Most Promising Newcomer - Male, for his film work.

Wait, film work?

'Like A Rhinestone Cowboy, Riding Out On A Horse In A Star-Spangled Rodeo'

Source: IMDB

In 1969, Campbell played the role of La Boeuf, sharing the screen with John Wayne in the cowboy movie True Grit. The film was a huge success, and Wayne won the Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Rooster Cogburn. Though the Golden Globes saw potential in Campbell, critics weren't too impressed -- Roger Ebert remarked that "Campbell ... needs some acting practice, finds it difficult to make the dialog convincing but Hathaway pulls him through." But as a chart-topping singer headlining his own successful TV show, Campbell could have made a serious run at a the star-spangled rodeo of a Hollywood career if he'd wanted.

As it happened, he played the lead role in just one other movie, Norwood, which was released in 1970 and co-starred the football player Joe Namath. Campbell's acting career fizzled after Norwood, although that may have had to do with the toll that drugs and alcohol had begun to take on Campbell. Like many of the leading country singers -- and rock stars -- and pop stars -- Campbell spent much of the '70s in a haze.

'Well, I Really Don't Mind The Rain, And A Smile Can Hide All The Pain'

By 1974, Campbell was coasting -- he remained a popular artist but had lost his edge, and the performance of his albums and singles reflected it. A little reinvention was in order.

Campbell heard a song on the radio called "Rhinestone Cowboy," by singer-songwriter Larry Weiss. He immediately latched onto it for its autobiographical resonance. After hunting down a cassette tape and studying the track in greater detail, he took his case to a record label executive. "I’ve got to do this song I found. I won’t take no for an answer," he said, according to an account at Nash Country Daily. In a bizarre twist, the executive agreed to listen to the song Campbell wanted to record if Campbell would consider a song the executive had discovered. Both of them were talking about "Rhinestone Cowboy." That pretty much settled it.

"Rhinestone Cowboy" became Campbell's biggest hit, and a monster crossover to the pop charts he'd once roamed as an anonymous session musician. The song went to #1 in various categories and in various countries in 1975. Two years later, Campbell had another crossover country-pop hit with "Southern Nights."

The Legacy Of The Rhinestone Cowboy, Glen Campbell

Glen Campbell later in life. Source: Pinterest

It has been over 40 years since Campbell released his recording of “Rhinestone Cowboy.” The multi-talented entertainer died in 2017, but the song he made famous lives on as an anthem of career frustration and the dream of making it big. Ultimately, it's a hopeful song. The biggest hit of his epic career continues to remind us of Glen Campbell’s country music legacy.

Here are the lyrics to "Rhinestone Cowboy" in full:

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 and the rain

There's been a load of compromisin'
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 a 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

There'll be a load of compromisin'
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
Rhinestone cowboy
Gettin' cards and letters from people I don't even know
And offers comin' over the phone

Like a rhinestone cowboy
Riding out on a horse in a star-spangled rodeo
Like a rhinestone cowboy
Gettin' card and letters from people I don't even know

Like a rhinestone cowboy
Riding out on a horse in a star-spangled rodeo

Songwriters: John Matthews / Darren Sampson / Larry Weiss

Rhinestone Cowboy lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Warner/Chappell Music, Inc

Tags: 1975 | Glen Campbell | Like A Rhinestone Cowboy | Song Meanings, Lyrics, And Facts | The 1970s

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Rebeka Knott

Writer

Rebeka grew up in the 1960’s & 1970’s and has always subscribed to the theory that a positive attitude will take you far! She is a wife and mother of 3 with a fun-loving spirit, believing that family and relationships are invaluable.