Transcript 173–Wichita Lineman

NOTE: This is a pre-production transcript and may not match the final show precisely.


Hey, Cuz! It’s the next episode of How Good It Is, and today, we’re going to tap some wires in Kansas. Let’s go, Jenna…


Hi there! I’m Claude Call, and I’m proud to be amongst you. Let’s do some One Hit Wonder trivia. This band, comprised of five Mexican-Americans, cut their one hit in their manager’s living room in Bay City, Michigan, and they got the original label to press 500 copies for local stores and radio stations. The leader of the group promoted the record all over Michigan without ever revealing his real name, or removing his sunglasses. What was the band, and what was the song, which eventually became a national hit? I’ll have that answer for ye near the end of the show.

In 1968, Glen Campbell was still riding high on the wave of his success from the song “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” which was written in 1965 by Jimmy Webb. Now, if you remember all the way back to Episode 13, you remember that Jimmy Webb wrote “MacArthur Park” as a response to his breakup with Susan Horton, who eventually married Linda Ronstadt’s cousin Bobby. Believe it or not, “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” was also a song based on Jimmy and Susan’s breakup. And between Jimmy Webb’s experience, and that of the Buckinghams, whose biggest hits were also about a failed relationship with a woman named Susan, well, now I’m wondering what it is with Susans, at least back in the 1960s. Anyway. Glen Campbell had a big hit with “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” so he came back to Jimmy Webb looking for another song that specifically featured a “place” or a “geographical location” of some kind.

Well. One fine day Webb was driving through Washita County in southwestern Oklahoma, which at the time was very rural and very desolate. I don’t know what it looks like now, but I need to lay out the picture then, right? As he headed westward, directly into the setting sun, there was little more than the road, a relatively flat landscape and lots and lots of telephone poles. Then, at some point, he noticed something in the distance. It was the silhouette of a lineman working on top of one of the poles.

Now, I feel like I need to stop for a minute and explain some of the terminology here, for the younger set. Back in the day, when towns were few and far between, the poles and the lines that ran between them weren’t maintained by the phone company, or by the electric company, but instead by the local authorities. And when there’s no town, no local authority, that means it’s county property. Got all that? Great.

So Webb said in an interview that he had this very specific image of this lone figure up on the pole, just doing his job really. He’s got a handset connected to the phone line, and he’s probably not doing much more than making sure it works correctly, but it’s also on this bigger picture of hundreds of poles getting smaller and smaller in the distance to the front AND the back, and of course he passes the guy and now the guy’s getting smaller again in the rearview. And that got him thinking about what it was like, being up on the phone pole and what would you be talking about? Would he be talking to his girlfriend? Would he be just checking in with someone? Who really knows. But that was the genesis of the song. Why Wichita rather than Washita? Webb explained that one as being simple, saying “It sings better.”

In an interview with the Daily Mail, Glen Campbell recalled that Webb oftentimes would sit on the floor in the studio and write while he did some of his recording. At one point Webb played him a little bit of what he was working on, and Campbell was very excited about it, encouraging him to finish it as quickly as possible. In an interview with American Songwriter, Webb says that Campbell and producer Al De Lory called him every couple of hours to see if it was finished. At that point, he didn’t really have the last verse written, but just to get them off his back, he said, “Well, I’m gonna send it over, and if you want me to finish it, I’ll finish it.” That’s when Webb took what he had and cut a demo with it, accompanying himself on a Hammond organ. That detail is going to be important in a minute.

Now, Campbell, who had some prominence as a studio musician before he became famous, had many of his former co-workers in the studio to record with him. This, of course, was the Wrecking Crew. On this recording it was Campbell, Al Casey and James Burton on guitars, Jim Gordon on drums, Carol Kaye playing bass and Al DeLory on piano. Naturally, the Wrecking Crew knew what was what, and they oftentimes were able to enhance a song on their own. Carol Kaye, who has cited this track as one of her favorites, has said that she created most of the intro on the song, specifically those opening notes that often go overlooked:


While they were recording the song, though, Campbell felt like something was missing. He said that he couldn’t quite capture the feel of the song that he got when he heard Webb’s demo. Finally he decided that the only way to get the right vibe was to add Webb’s Hammond organ to the song’s instrumentation.

A couple of weeks later, Jimmy Webb met with Glen Campbell. In that interview with American Songwriter, he said he hadn’t heard back from Campbell or Al De Lory, so he said, “Well, I guess ‘Wichita Lineman’ didn’t make the cut.” Campbell replied, “Oh yeah! We recorded that!” Webb said, “Listen, I didn’t really think the song was finished” and Campbell told him, “Well, it is now!”

The part where the verse is missing is where we get the instrumental break. It’s a DanElectro Longhorn bass guitar that he’d borrowed from Carol Kaye, with some tremolo added to it.

Now, I don’t usually get too deeply into the aesthetics of a song, but for a track that’s under three minutes, it’s a freakin’ masterpiece, and shame on me for not covering this song five years ago. Let’s start by returning to Jimmy Webb.

By this point in his career, he had two big hits under his belt. We’ve already talked about “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”, but he’d also struck with “Up Up and Away” for the Fifth Dimension. “MacArthur Park” had only juuust been released, so it hadn’t done anything yet when he was writing this. So clearly ol’ Jimmy was still trying to purge Susan from his mind. Anyway. Webb packs a lot of amazing imagery into such a short song. I’m especially fond of the line “I hear you singing in the wires,” which is a great bit of imagery. If you’ve ever spent any amount of time near high-tension wires, whether they’re power lines, or bridge cables, you know that when it’s windy, sometimes the wind can cause the wires to vibrate, and they whistle, or whine,


like an Aeolan Harp. For those of you who don’t know, an Aeolian Harp is a stringed instrument that’s played by the wind; you don’t interact with it at all except maybe to turn it into, or away from, the wind. That’s what you’re listening to right now…

…but he goes from that hopefulness of “I hear you singing in the wire” to the realization that it’s really just the whine of noise in the lines.

The other lyric I really appreciate is the one that Campbell sings twice: “And I need you more than want you, and I want you for all time.” That’s some serious wanting, there. But it’s not just Webb’s lyrics at work, it’s how Campbell treats them, both with his singing and with the strings backing him up. You can feel the yearning that this guy is going through. It’s also interesting to me that at the key moment, he switches to the third person, not saying “I’m still on the line” but rather “the Wichita Lineman is still on the line”, on the pole and listening for some kind of sign.

So from there, let’s move to Campbell and his interpretation of the song. Campbell—the whole song, really—drifts around on various chords. Musically it’s in the key of F, but after the beginning you never really hear that chord again. Plus, Campbell does these little key changes as he sings. For instance, when he sings “for another overload”. It should sound weird, but it doesn’t. Now, remember this is 1968 and shifting like that is kind of a sophisticated thing to do in popular music; it’s not like, say, Rush in the 70s or Alice in Chains in the 80s and 90s. Likewise, when he goes from “I hear you singing in the wire” to “I can hear you through the whine,” the tonal shift brings him down again.

And finally let’s come back to those strings. That’s De Lory at work again. He arranged all of the orchestral parts and provided some of the keyboards. He set up those strings to play very high notes, again giving us the sounds of the singing wires, plus there’s a short motif between the verses that he scored for the strings based on a lick that Carol Kaye came up with. And he’s got Jim Horn plus a keyboard doing this kind of monotone Morse Code thing that a lineman might hear when he taps into the wires. And it all comes together at the end, with the strings, the flute, the keyboards and the Hammond organ all leave us with this lonely guy, just doing his job and thinking deep thoughts. Or, as Jimmy Webb would put it, an ordinary guy thinking about extraordinary things.

“Wichita Lineman” spent 15 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at Number Three on that chart. It was a Number One song on the Country Chart and the Adult Contemporary Chart. Outside the US, it was Number One in Canada, Number 10 in New Zealand, Number 15 in Australia, Number 7 in the UK and Number 12 in Ireland, which came as a little bit of a surprise to me, largely because I thought Country music was more popular in Ireland. But maybe that came later on. It’s gotten lots of accolades as well, with Bob Dylan calling it the greatest song ever written. High praise, indeed. And in 2019, not long after Campbell’s death, the recording was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Recording Registry for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

Cover versions? You bet there are cover versions. A whole lot of “middle of the road” artists, such as Tom Jones, Johnny Mathis, and Bobby Goldsboro have recorded their version of the song. Jose Feliciano recorded an instrumental version of the song—that’s what you’ve been listening to for the last minute or so. One version I rather like is from 2016, by the country-pop band Restless Heart, which I think did a nice job with the background vocals, which the song doesn’t often have.


According to Secondhand Songs dot com, there are over 350 different recordings of this song, including versions in Norwegian, Swedish, Italian, German, French and Finnish.


Ooh, I guess I’m Finnish now, too. Heh.

And now, it’s time to answer our trivia question. Back on Page Two, I asked you about the Mexican-American band that recorded their hit single in their manager’s living room, then the lead singer promoted the record without ever telling anyone his real name, or removing his sunglasses. Sounds pretty mysterious, right?

The lead singer, who also wrote the song, was named Rudy Martinez, and the song, which is considered one of the first garage-band hits, features one of the most recognizable riffs on the Vox Continental organ.

[96 TEARS]

Rudy Martinez is the Question Mark behind Question Mark and the Mysterians, a name that came from a 1957 Japanese science fiction film of the same name. According to an interview with Songfacts, Martinez heard keyboard player Frank Rodriguez singing what turned out to be the song’s central riff, and he had Rodriguez play it over and over until he’d locked in on the song.

It’s also worth noting that Question Mark and the Mysterians is not really a one-hit wonder. The following year, they scored a #22 hit with “I Need Somebody,” which sounded even more garage-y, and had a faster Vox riff propelling it. It’s a track worth checking out; you might even remember it upon re-hearing it.


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