Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.
“Wichita Lineman” is a certified classic, a fixture in the great American songbook, full stop. But it is also a work in progress. In a way.
The truth is that Jimmy Webb had every intention of writing a middle section and another verse about his solitary lineman. But Glen Campbell got hold of an early draft, and then recorded his version before Webb even knew about it. Who knows if Webb might have ruined a good thing with further revision; what’s certain is that “Wichita Lineman” is a shining example of the Less is More principle, and we owe Campbell a lot for rushing it out.
Campbell also gets some credit for the song’s creation. A year before “Wichita Lineman” dropped, Campbell scored a major hit with another Jimmy Webb gem, “By the Time I Get to Phoenix.” So the singer suggested the writer come up with “another song about a place.” Webb resisted the idea initially, but his poetic imagination was more receptive. Inspired by a long drive through the arid flatness of Oklahoma and the sight of a worker on a telephone pole, Webb hatched the song idea, and presented a draft of “Wichita Lineman.” It moved the homesick Campbell to tears, and that was enough for him. It was enough for everyone else, too.
Campbell got his Wrecking Crew buddies together in the studio, and added a baritone guitar solo to create an instrumental section. That, and some string arrangements, added meat to the bones of the song, and off it went. Webb knew nothing about the recording, and assumed Campbell had lost interest. When Webb found out Campbell had cut the track, he told Campbell it wasn’t done yet. Campbell replied, “Well, it’s done now!”
The song launched into the upper reaches of the pop, country, and adult contemporary charts. Soon it was in the hands of a few hundred artists attempting their version, including some of the best vocalists and instrumentalists of its time and ours. The Glen Campbell version may remain the definitive one, but there’s quite a few musicians who nailed it too.
There are of course country versions and jazz versions, reggae, soul, and metal renditions, and so on. But they all seem to keep the simplicity of the song intact, leaving well enough alone. The song itself is concerned with overloading and straining, as if to say that this thing works and hangs together, but just barely. Go easy.
Scud Mountain Boys–Wichita Lineman (Glen Campbell/Jimmy Webb cover)
Last year we gave some love to the overlooked Scud Mountain Boys by shining the spotlight on its leader, Joe Pernice. The SMB version of “Wichita Lineman” wasn’t part of that survey because it was guitarist Bruce Tull, not Pernice, who sang the lead vocal, and presumably brought the song to the table. Tull’s voice, and the warm, resonant atmosphere of the recording, are standout. I wouldn’t change a thing about the guitar work, either—not the tone, not a single note choice. Every cover on the compilation this comes from—Scud Mountain Boys: The Early Year–is worth a listen.
The Meters–Wichita Lineman (Glen Campbell/Jimmy Webb cover)
Ask any lineman in the county: they all know the importance of metering. So do The Meters. The funk originators charge up their cover with a tempo increase on the second half of the verse. Even when the band impedes the current and takes it slow, there’s a crackling energy present. The Meters recorded this in 1970, but it still sounds so good. Why’d we move away from vacuum tubes again?
If you like The Meters version, but want less funk and more soul, you might like Dennis Brown’s haunting version.
Inger Marie Gundersen–Wichita Lineman (Glen Campbell/Jimmy Webb cover)
When Inger Marie Gundersen sings “My man’s a lineman for the county,” it’s more than a way to open up the lyric to a female voice: it recasts the song into one about something other than the isolation of the lineman. Suddenly the lineman is the one who is loved and longed for. You get to revisit his situation, reflect on the images of weather and tension and wonder what they say about him—and about her.
It’s been done this way before: Cassandra Wilson used that exact phrasing almost twenty years ago in her terrific version, and maybe Wilson was nodding to an earlier model herself. But Gundersen’s low-register, slow-pitch delivery really sells it. Whatever Wilson and Diana Krall have going on in terms of timing and texture, Gundersen’s got it too. Her band supports the treatment with a spare, poetic touch. With her intimate covers and compelling originals, Gundersen deserves more attention.
Gregoire Maret, Romain Collin, Bill Frisell–Wichita Lineman (Glen Campbell/Jimmy Webb cover)
This song has inspired many fine instrumental renditions. This one is recent, and it’s unique. Harmonica master Gregoire Maret draws a wistful melancholy from his instrument. The spacious arrangement has a cinematic quality that suits the song. You see the lineman’s truck trundling down a ribbon of highway on the vast plain, past windblown fields, and those may be snow clouds in the distance.
This track is a popular one from their Grammy-nominated 2020 Americana release, second only to their cover of Bon Iver’s “Stacks,” but comfortably ahead of “Brothers in Arms” by Mark Knopler. (Spotify stats are sometimes interesting.)
Honorable mention in the jazz Wichita Lineman category goes to the Peter Erskine – Alan Pasqua trio. Like Maret, they stretch out beautifully on “Wichita Lineman” without weaving off the main melodic road.
Eddy Arnold–Wichita Lineman (Glen Campbell/Jimmy Webb cover)
It’s hard to overstate how thoroughly Eddy Arnold owned the Country charts from the mid-‘40s through the ‘50s. His ‘60s run wasn’t bad either. The singer who pioneered “the Nashville sound” helped make country music safe for mass-markets, and thereby paved the way for stylish young talents like Glen Campbell to rise up and eclipse him.
Arnold recorded his version of Webb’s song within a year of Campbell’s release. The arrangement is a bit lush even for its time, but Arnold’s voice is as strong and relaxed as ever. For full effect, mix yourself a cocktail from that period–a Manhattan perhaps, or an Old-Fashioned–and have a listen.
One more cover for the road? Enjoy the Ray Charles version.