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The True Grit of Glen Campbell

A tribute to the trailblazing country music icon (and TV host, and actor), who died Tuesday at 81

Glen Campbell Getty Images

They oughta make an Oscar-worthy Glen Campbell biopic, and it oughta star Will Ferrell. Both have long been lionized as towering, all-American cornballs, hyper-charismatic but affable, handsome in a modest and goofy way. “Strong and happy and big,” is how Campbell was described in the 2014 documentary Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me, which pays tribute to a trailblazing and multitalented country icon. As a TV host, we’re told, he was “completely game and completely fun” (that’s Steve Martin); as a pop-crossover superstar, he wrung infinite emotional complexity from a “simple presentation.” (That’s Bruce Springsteen.)

I’ll Be Me shadows Campbell on his final tour, which followed a 2011 diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease. Directed by James Keach, it’s a sweet film that nonetheless does not flinch at his deterioration, onstage and off. “I think it’s better to die from something else,” is how his wife, Kimberly Campbell, puts it late in the game, when it’s clear he’s no longer lucid enough to perform, though it’s equally clear that’s still what he knows, and does, best.

Campbell died Tuesday in Nashville. He was 81. Right up until the end, he did what he loved, surrounded by the people he loved; his backing band in I’ll Be Me included three of his children. By the end of the film, his memory is getting markedly worse. But as his daughter Ashley’s single “Remembering” put it, “Daddy don’t you worry / I’ll do the remembering.”

He was born the seventh of 12 children in Delight, Arkansas; he heard all the jokes, and laughed at them, and made plenty himself. As a solo performer, Campbell’s biggest hits—including “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” and “Wichita Lineman” from the ’60s, and “Rhinestone Cowboy” and “Southern Nights” from the ’70s—are both colossal and, as Springsteen put it, simple in the best way, syrupy and soothing, with a weapons-grade crooning pleasantness. He was never quite cool, perhaps, but he never tried to be. The true outlaws never identify themselves as such.

Before the hits even began, Campbell had proved himself a master session musician, hooking up in the early ’60s with legendary studio band the Wrecking Crew, backing everyone from Elvis to Merle Haggard to Frank Sinatra. He also joined the Beach Boys for a spell, playing on Pet Sounds and filling in for Brian Wilson on tour. He was a legitimately great guitar player—in I’ll Be Me, his most intense and focused and truly present moments seem to occur mid-solo. His fame established, he proved himself onscreen, too, starring opposite John Wayne in 1969’s True Grit and hosting CBS variety show The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour from 1969 to 1972. (Steve Martin partly got his start as one of the show’s writers.)

Campbell made more than 60 records and sold 45 million copies. His career waned as the ’70s dragged on, and he was not immune to the rockier aspects of the superstar arc: the multiple marriages (Kimberly was his fourth wife), his struggles with substance abuse, a 2003 DUI arrest. But he seemed to have stabilized, emotionally and professionally, by the time of his Alzheimer’s diagnosis, which kicked off one of the more remarkable—and discomfiting, and ultimately heartening—farewell tours in the country-star canon.

His last two albums with new material, 2011’s Ghost on the Canvas and this year’s covers-heavy Adiós, don’t bother with subtext, from the titles on down. As he puts it on Ghost’s “A Better Place”:

Some days I’m so confused, Lord
My past gets in my way
I need the ones I love, Lord
More and more each day

The one that gets me on that record is his cover of Guided by Voices’ “Hold on Hope,” an indie-rock power ballad he refashions into an offbeat elegy, delivered with a wink as you blink to keep from crying. I never knew what this song was about, and now I know.

Look at the talkbox
Mute frustration
At the station
There rides the cowboy
His campfire flickering
On the landscape

The whole of I’ll Be Me is like this, poignant and vulnerable, lovingly questioning whether putting him onstage in this condition was the right thing to do, and concluding that how he felt about it was the only thing that really mattered. “To have your children sing your songs when you can’t,” concluded a pained but admiring concert review from Jon Caramanica in The New York Times. “What a beautiful thing that is.”

The film closes with an in-studio reunion with his old buddies in the Wrecking Crew, cutting one last song, called “I’m Not Gonna Miss You.” The scene plays out like a delicate, distinctly Glen Campbellesque spin on Johnny Cash’s “Hurt” video, an emphatic wave goodbye that can’t help but retain a cheerfulness that only makes it hit harder. “That wasn’t exactly the Glen Campbell that we had known,” country singer Larry Gatlin notes diplomatically earlier in the film, after a shaky but ultimately triumphant Nashville show where the source of both the joy and the pain was the certainty that it would be among Campbell’s last. “But he still was.”