This is the 67th post in a weekly series. Read about it here and see the list of previous songs here. A new post about a different song is posted each Monday. You can listen to the songs in a Spotify playlist.

After having a hit in 1967 with Jimmy Webb’s “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” Glen Campbell called Webb to ask if he could write Campbell another song about a town. Webb said he wasn’t sure if he could, but Campbell said he’d settle for something “geographical.”

With that instruction, Webb was able to start writing “Wichita Lineman.” Webb later told American Songwriter:

I had a lot of ‘prairie gothic’ images in my head. And I was writing about the common man, the blue-collar hero who gets caught up in the tides of war, as in ‘Galveston,’ or the guy who’s driving back to Oklahoma because he can’t afford a plane ticket (‘Phoenix’). So it was a character that I worked with in my head. And I had seen a lot of panoramas of highways and guys up on telephone wires … I didn’t want to write another song about a town, but something that would be in the ballpark for him.

Webb had added pressure in that Campbell and producer Al DeLory wanted that song as soon as possible. Webb set to work on it the afternoon he got the call, though he had some hiccups working on it. Webb lived in a house with 30 people, and as a prank the night before, some of them painted Webb’s piano green. Webb felt the challenge of writing the song as fast as he could without getting any of the still-wet paint on himself. He failed, later saying, “I went through half a can of turpentine getting the paint off the piano and off me.”

That afternoon, Webb sent Campbell and DeLory what he had done, but he felt it was unfinished, as the song only had two verses:

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

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

A few weeks later, after not hearing about the song from Campbell or DeLory, Webb told Campbell he assumed the song had not made the cut. But Campbell and DeLory had loved the song and had already recorded it. When Webb told Campbell the song hadn’t been finished, Campbell famously replied, “Well it’s done now!”

On the strength of “Wichita Lineman,” Campbell’s album of the same name went double platinum in the US. It was his first chart hit in the UK, and it the US, it became Campbell’s first gold single, reaching Number 1 on the country chart and Number 3 on the pop chart.

In the nearly half century since then, “Wichita Lineman” has become one Campbell’s most recognizable songs, as well as one of his most covered.

Smokey Robinson & The Miracles covered “Wichita Lineman” for the 1969 album, “Time Out for Smokey Robinson & The Miracles.” Campbell’s version had emotion, but Robinson imbued the song with a new sense of soul that complemented the previous version. And as strong as Robinson’s vocals were, the backing vocals of The Miracles were just as noteworthy.

Tom Jones’ “Wichita Lineman,” from “This Is Tom Jones,” had a similar arrangement to Campbell’s version, though Jones’ cover had little of the country undertones.

Similarly, Andy Williams’ cover of “Wichita Lineman” on “Happy Heart” was pretty faithful to Campbell’s original version.

Sergio Mendes & Brasil ’66 changed the tone of “Wichita Lineman” by changing the narrator to a woman singing about her boyfriend. The cover, which appeared on the 1969 album “Ye-Me-Le,” portrayed the lineman as a distant character being pined for, rather than the one doing the pining. The lyrics of loneliness still resonated, but it didn’t have the same dynamic of the original, where the lineman was lonely because he was out on the line. This female narrator could still be lonely, of course, but it’s how isolated she was remained unclear.

Jazz guitarist Charlie Byrd included an instrumental version of “Wichita Lineman” on “The Great Byrd.” Though the song omitted Webb’s lyrics, it was just as melancholy as if it had words.

The Meters’ third studio album, “Struttin’,” included the band’s iconic “Chicken Strut” and a cover of “Wichita Lineman.” Compared to the band’s other songs, The Meters’ “Wichita Lineman” sounded subdued and restrained. But as low-key as it might have been, it still had some kick to it, particularly with the ominous opening notes.

But it was Sammy Davis Jr. who brought the funk to “Wichita Lineman,” including it on his 1970 album, “Something for Everyone.” The bright horns and infectious bass gave the song a happier tone, though Davis’ delivery on the line “I need you more than want you” had a hint of sadness to it.

Kool and The Gang’s live instrumental version of “Wichita Lineman,” from the band’s 1971 album “Live at the Sex Machine,” was a slow buildup over a sleek section that formed the backbone of the track over five and a half minutes. Like Byrd’s version, this cover was able to convey a sense of regret without a single word.

Ray Charles’ “Wichita Lineman,” from his “Volcanic Action of My Soul,” managed to combine a variety of styles such that at any given point in the song, it sounded like a big band tune, an R&B ballad, or a country song. One of the best flourishes Charles added might have been the ad-lib when he said, “The Wichita lineman — that’s me, baby.”

British Electric Foundation was a production team that Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh formed after leaving Human League in 1980. Stylized as B.E.F., the outfit’s biggest act was Heaven 17, the trio that Ware and Marsh formed with Glenn Gregory. But while mainly a production arm, B.E.F. released music in its own right. In 1982, the group released “Music of Quality and Distinction, Vol. 1,” which featured a shimmery version of “Wichita Lineman” with Gregory on vocals. The keyboard track started out as ethereal, but by the track’s end, the air synths had become haunting and foreboding.

Urge Overkill, the band that would later become famous for its cover of “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon,” covered “Wichita Lineman” for its 1987 release “Lineman.” With distorted guitars and gritty production, this was one of the lest polished versions, and refreshingly so.

Nearly 30 years after he wrote the song for Campbell, Jimmy Webb recorded “Wichita Lineman” for his 1996 album, “Ten Easy Pieces.” With Webb’s piano forming the base for most of the song, his version had an intimate but eery sound to it. And given that he wrote the song on a piano, it seems fitting to hear him play it on one. We can assume that this piano had not been recently painted when he played on it.

That same year, R.E.M. included “Wichita Lineman” on the single for “Bittersweet Me.” Instrumentally, the song didn’t sound like the original arrangement, but Michael Stipe’s delivery, though distinctly Stipe-ian, was faithful to Campbell’s phrasing.

Dwight Yoakam’s 1997 album “Under the Covers” was, as the title suggests, a covers album. Yoakam’s not only sped up Webb’s arrangement on “Wichita Lineman,” but punctuated it with drums.

Like his covers of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” or Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus,” Johnny Cash’s “Wichita Lineman” was quiet and minimalist. Singing over light guitar, soaring strings, and piano, Cash sounded as hopeful as he did sad. Then again, that could easily describe most of the songs he ever recorded.

Cassandra Wilson stretched out “Wichita Lineman” to almost six minutes for her 2002 album “Belly of the Sun,” slowly singing Webb’s lyrics over a jazz arrangement. Instrumentally, the track was nothing remarkable, as you could hear the song on the stereo at a coffee shop or airport and never think twice. It’s Wilson’s deliberate and thoughtful delivery that gives this cover its character.

Pat DiNizio, frontman for The Smithereens, included an intimate piano version of “Wichita Lineman” for his 2005 collection, “This Is Pat DiNizio.” DiNizio has a voice that can sound vulnerable when he’s screaming over distorted guitars, so when it’s just him and a piano, he was especially emotive.

James Taylor’s 2008 album, “Covers,” had a version of “Wichita Lineman” that sounded exactly what you’d expect a James Taylor version of “Wichita Lineman” to sound like. It was fine, but it definitely had that “easy listening you’d hear at the airport” vibe.

Jimmy Webb recorded “Wichita Lineman” with Billy Joel for his 2010 album “Just Across the River.” It was not much different than the previous version by Webb, just with Billy Joel on the second verse.

In 2012, actress Rita Wilson released a covers album of radio hits from the ’60s and ’70s. Called “AM/FM,” the collection included songs that would have been popular on AM stations along with songs more likely to have been heard on FM radio. Naturally, “Wichita Lineman” was a perfect choice for such a project. Her quiet arrangement gave it an easy listening feel, allowing Wilson’s voice to be the centerpiece. It was a fine cover, though Stephen Thomas Erlewine raised a good question in his assessment of the album: “Surely this will be appealing for fellow Baby Boomers looking back fondly on the golden age of rock & roll radio, but the question remains, if you’re pining for the past wouldn’t it just be better to put on the original hits?”

Ashley Campbell, Glen’s daughter, released her own version of “Wichita Lineman” in 2016. Though it had the polish of modern country, Ashley Campbell’s cover was faithful to her father’s version. It was pretty, as Ashley Campbell has a nice voice, but in the days since Glen Campbell’s death, it’s hard not to hear this cover as a tribute.

“Wichita Lineman” has come up in a good number of the reflections on Glen Campbell since his passing, and with good reason. It was not just a big hit for Campbell, but for pop culture in general. The ubiquitous song has been everywhere, including “The Simpsons.”

“Wichita Lineman” was one of Campbell’s many hits, but it’s the one helped establish Campbell as a star. Campbell knew this, and said it was his favorite ballad. And yet, he always gave credit where it was due: Jimmy Webb. “He’s just an exceptional writer. He pours his heart out,” Campbell said in an interview. “And I think that’s where the music comes from: the heart.”

The heart helped define “Wichita Lineman,” but in an essay for American Songwriter, Allen Morrison pointed out that the song had more going for it than just its lyrics. Webb’s arrangement lent itself to the lonely isolation of his words:

There are many reasons, but here’s one: the loneliness of that solitary prairie figure is not just present in the lyric, it’s built into the musical structure. Although the song is nominally in the key of F, after the tonic chord is stated in the intro it is never heard again in its pure form, with the root in the bass. The melody travels through a series of haunting changes that are considerably more sophisticated than the Top 40 radio norms of that era. The song never does get “home” again to the tonic – not in either verse, nor in the fade-out. This gorgeous musical setting suggests subliminally what the lyric suggests poetically: the lonely journeyman, who remains suspended atop that telephone pole, against that desolate prairie landscape, yearning for home.

For his part, Webb accepted that his fame was more as a songwriter than a singer. And though he said in 2013 that he would probably not play “Wichita Lineman” again live, it seems to have been no reflection upon his feelings toward Campbell. “He made me sound good,” Webb once said of Campbell. “He made me sound like a genius.”

You can listen to these songs and previously discussed cover songs in a Spotify playlist.
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