The Paris Review

Repo Man: Glen Campbell in Charles Portis’s Norwood

Glen Campbell was the perfect articulator of Portis’s defiantly at-odds small-town characters and their old-fashioned dreams.

Glen Campbell in 1967.

Like most sharecroppers’ kids, the country singer Glen Campbell, who died last week of complications of Alzheimer’s, instinctively looked for the quickest way out of the cotton field. He was born in 1936, in Billstown, Arkansas, an unincorporated community near the evocatively named town of Delight; he was, he often told people, the “seventh son of a seventh son.” Campbell got good at the guitar fast—he received his first Sears model at the age of four, a gift from his Uncle Boo, and by the age of seventeen he had left Pike County far behind. Notably, he made it in Los Angeles long before he went to Nashville—a trajectory that would point him toward becoming one of the first true country pop stars, like the rhinestone cowboy of his own mammoth hit song.

Over the course of a fifty-year career, Campbell would become best known for performing other writers’ songs. Like Willie Nelson—a friend later in life with whom he recorded versions of “Hello Walls” and “Just to Satisfy You” on his variety TV show, and an aching rendition of “”—he was deeply influenced by the jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt. He had an ability to wrest the heart out of stories of the common man in the common place—the rhinestone cowboy with the “subway token and dollar tucked inside my shoe”; the plaintive yearnings of the overworked, under-romanced Wichita Lineman; the contemplative, brokenhearted hobo of “Gentle on My Mind.” Even when he took issue with the lives he sang about (after Campbell made a hit covering Cree musician Buffy Sainte-Marie’s “Universal Soldier,” he told a reporter that people who advocated burning draft cards “should be hung”), Campbell was most at home in the world of other people’s songs, as he would be . His ability to channel other personas may well owe as much to skills honed early on as a session musician, but they also speak to the survival instincts of a man with eleven siblings who left behind his impoverished, cotton-picking childhood as soon as he could. His phrasings were as versatile as his appearance; you could picture Campbell, with his genial, down-to-earth good looks, slipping into virtually any situation. You might work the factory line with him, you could have a beer with him, you would let him sell you a used car—or, perhaps, drive a stolen vehicle across the country. 

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