The Wichita Lineman: Searching in the Sun for the World’s Greatest Unfinished Song

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This book tells you everything you need to know about the background, recording and legacy of The Wichita Lineman, a classic country pop ballad that helped to launch the careers of both singer Glen Campbell and songwriter Jimmy Webb.

As a teenage rock fan I would have rather died than admit to liking anything by anybody as middle of the road as Campbell. He was part of the cultural backlash in the US against the anti-war movement and the counterculture.

After Campbell hit it big, he was given the prime-time Saturday evening flagship slot on CBS TV. His show replaced The Smothers Brothers’ Comedy Hour that had featured Communist Pete Seeger singing “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy”, a clearly anti-Vietnam War song, and other edgy content that made the TV bosses very nervous.

Wichita Lineman was exactly the type of commercial country music that was driving younger, hipper LA musicians such as Gram Parsons and Gene Clark to reject the “countrypolitan” sound of Nashville and marry the harder and more rootsy country sound of Bakersfield to the attitudes of the counterculture. Gil Scott-Heron predicted that “the theme song [of the revolution] would not be written by Jim Webb”.

But Wichita Lineman is a brilliant song — longing, atmospheric and beautifully delivered by Campbell with a perfectly judged arrangement, including a lovely bass guitar solo by Campbell himself. The string arrangement accentuates the loneliness expressed in the lyrics while at the same time sweetening them.

Like most classic popular songs Wichita Lineman has a very simple, albeit unusual, structure with just two verses and no big chorus with the hook lines repeated three times. The story is told through the voice of a lonely telephone repair man who can hear the woman he is longing for “singing through the wire”.

The song evokes the rolling Oklahoma plains of Webb’s youth where the telephone poles stretch down the highway far into the distance. The feeling of the song suggests something deeper than the literal meaning of the lyrics. The lines “and I need you more than want you and I want you for all time” are on the face of it the typical declaration of true love heard in a million pop songs, but there is something enigmatic, author Dylan Jones says existential, about this one.

On the face of it, Wichita Lineman was totally out of step with its times. It was in released in August 1968, just weeks before the police riot at the Democratic Convention in Chicago. This was the year of the assassination of Martin Luther King, ghetto risings, growing opposition to the war and radicalisation across US society. But as the author points out, “...not every work of art has the ambition of Guernica, just as not every song wants to kick-start a revolution”. For Webb, “...you can see someone working in construction or working in a field, a migrant worker or truck driver, and you may think you know what’s going on inside him, but you don’t. You can’t assume that a man isn’t a poet. And that’s really what the song is about”.

Campbell was on the other side of the cultural barricades in 1968. But that did not stop him producing a beautiful piece of music that speaks to everyone that wants to hear it. If you love The Wichita Lineman, you’ll thoroughly enjoy this book.