Ghost On The Canvas
NO MUSIC TODAY is at once so popular and so isolated as country. I don't mean the alt.country savoured by the eclectically inclined modern music lover. Rather, the sliced and processed American cheese produced by the ton in Nashville, consumed by umpty million avid fans, and ignored by almost everybody else. Lady Antebellum's last album rivals Lady Gaga's in sales, but the band's recognition outside the country scene is negligible.
It wasn't always this way. Once, country's biggest names were bona fide stars across the board. Four decades ago, Johnny Cash was a counter culture hero, Dolly Parton the punchline to a thousand off-colour jokes, Glen Campbell a chart-topping pop hitmaker.
In the Nineties, Cash showed how a faded country singer could reinvent himself. Campbell, after many years in the creative doldrums, eventually went the Cash route in 2008. On the wryly titled Meet Glen Campbell, he covered tunes by, among others, Foo Fighters and Green Day, reminding us what an extraordinary instrument his voice can be.
Campbell is now 75, and sad to tell, has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. He says that Ghost On The Canvas will be his last album. And what a sign-off it is. One might be liable to praise it out of sentimentality; fortunately, there's no call to. It evokes Samuel Johnson's dictum about how impending oblivion concentrates a man's mind wonderfully.
It doesn't lack for sentimentality, it's true. But that was always the thing Campbell does best. Sentimentality lies, in every sense, at Nashville's core. Campbell's forte was and is to render it exquisite rather than tawdry. To make it seem as if it weren't a lie after all. Listen to almost any other version of Gentle On My Mind or Wichita Lineman - there are plenty, often by otherwise first-rate performers - and odds are it will feel like transparent kitsch set against Campbell's. Ghost On The Canvas features original songs composed by Campbell in company with his friend Julian Raymond, who also produced the record, alongside those provided by admirers.Some of those writers - Paul Westerberg of The Replacements, who supplies the majestic title track; Guided By Voices' Robert Pollard, whose Hold On Hope is pure harmonised power-pop joy - are closer in stature and talent to Campbell's great quartermaster Jimmy Webb than others, such as second-generation men Jakob Dylan and Teddy Thompson. But all serve Campbell well here.
Raymond has done a sterling job on the production, too, resisting the temptations of Cash-style austerity on the one hand - it wouldn't work; Campbell has none of Cash's gravitas - and overly lavish ornamentation on the other. Instead, he's approximated the measured riches of Campbell's Sixties peak. Which might be no more than knowing nostalgia if the material and Campbell's own vocals weren't up to scratch. Instead, Ghost On The Canvas is the kind of strong and satisfying country pop at which Campbell once excelled - a record which would stand on its merits even shorn of its melancholy context.
As with Campbell, it has taken a long time for Dolly Parton to receive anything like her due as
an artist. That her best work is so undervalued is partly her own doing. The singer-songwriter behind the lovely original of I Will Always Love You, the buoyant, bittersweet Here You Come Again, and the bleakly powerful Down From Dover is also the woman who has intentionally turned herself into a cartoon image and a theme-park brand.
Her latest release, the uninspiring Better Day, is unlikely to help. It's not a shoddy album - on the contrary, it's as slick and accomplished as you'd expect from one who's been in the crowd-pleasing business so long. But it is altogether country - proudly, even defiantly so - in the current, narrow sense alluded to above. It's a formulaic product seemingly designed for heavy rotation on US country music radio, to show the young pretenders she's still very much in the game.
Where Glen Campbell has transcended the idea of music for one specific market, Dolly Parton embraces it. If that market isn't you, there's little for you here.
London Royal Festival Hall
IT MAY sound paradoxical to say this of someone who sold 45 million records, and won the first Album Of The Year Grammy awarded to a country act: but Glen Campbell has only lately become fully appreciated. That is, only in the last decade has his stature as an artist been reasserted over his reputation as the cornball showman of Rhinestone Cowboy and TV variety.
As this necessarily brief greatest-hits set illustrates, Campbell was and remains a wonderful performer. Afflicted with Alzheimer's disease, he has released a final album - the excellent Ghost On The Canvas - and is engaged upon a farewell tour.
It would be affecting enough to see him guided through the show by his own children, three of whom play in his backing band; to cue himself into each number by rapidly reciting its opening line before he begins to sing; to stumble occasionally over the words, and unwittingly repeat his stage business.
But what lends the evening such remarkable poignancy is that he's still so good. The false starts, the clutching at recall, vanish once each tune gets rolling. He opens with his impeccably casual reading of Gentle On My Mind (his hit version was recorded as a demo take), and the lyric about “The backroads by the rivers of my memory” can surely have never been so resonant.
Campbell ranks among the great interpreters, one who makes iffy songs good and good ones extraordinary. Some of his catalogue - Dreams Of The Everyday Housewife, Try A Little Kindness - might be unbearably cloying in the care of a lesser singer. Although there's no such danger with the many Jimmy Webb compositions aired here.
“Jimmy Webb is genius,” Campbell announces offhandedly, as if the thought has just struck him. Webb once remarked it seemed divine providence which paired Campbell with Wichita Lineman. Tonight it sounds as sublime and tender as it ever did, ornamented with a glorious guitar solo from Campbell, who even now displays the shining quicksilver fluency that made him such a popular session player before his solo career took off.
It's all distilled into little more than an hour, 50 years of brilliance and cheese, from a man with a gift for transforming the latter into the former. It's a thrill to see him show it one last time.