On Tuesday evening, after long drive home from Lake Tahoe, I found myself confronted with some sad though long-expected news: the great Glen Campbell had died. I sat down and picked up my guitar, as I had longed planned to do on this solemn occasion, and played “Rhinestone Cowboy,” my eyes growing moist as I choked out the lyrics. My wife Leah, in another part of the house, knew without asking what my unexpected song must mean.
As I played, I was remembering the towering presence Glen Campbell had been in country music and in my younger life. In today’s era of idol worship, it might be hard to understand how important Glen had been to my family. He had, after all, recorded a Happy Birthday greeting to my mom – in his spot-on Donald Duck voice, no less. But that was just one of his small, unexpected kindnesses.
Now Glen had passed away — complications from Alzheimer's, at the age of 81 — and I couldn’t help but feel that a little of my story had passed with him. The greater public knew him from mega-hits like “Rhinestone Cowboy,” “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” and “Wichita Lineman.” I knew him that way too — but also a friend.
In July 1971, when I was 17 years old, I painted portraits as a hobby. My father had come home with a record album several years earlier by a new singer named Glen Campbell. We were not a musical family by any stretch, and we were not yet country fans either. We lived in Alexandria, Virginia, and Montavani and Bert Kaempfert were the only artists that made it to the turntable of our record player.
But there was this Glen Campbell album and a song called “Gentle on My Mind.”
Everyone loved it, me, my sister, my mom and - quite surprisingly - my dad. Well, as we became bigger fans, I started to paint Glen Campbell’s portrait for fun. The first two portraits of Glen, fellow students in high school liked, and I gave them away. The third painting, though, was a keeper.
Soon, Glen Campbell was a national phenomenon, filling major coliseums across the nation. His “Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour” TV show was also a network hit. My father had heard he was going to be doing a show in North Carolina at the Charlotte Coliseum. After purchasing tickets, I called the coliseum and spoke with someone about meeting Glen to show him my painting. They told me to come back stage when we arrived the night of the concert, and they would see what they could do.
When I did this the evening of the performance, to my amazement, they opened a door and there - as big as life - stood the man himself, Glen Campbell. I thrust the painting at the doorman, and yelled that I would be right back. I ran up the coliseum - away from the stage - yelling the whole way for my mom and sister to join me. Together we hurried back to the stage door and were welcomed in.
It was an incredible experience. They say you should never meet your heroes in life, as they are sure to disappoint, but I can definitely say that Glen was anything but disappointing. He was the most gracious and down to earth celebrity I have ever met. He spent upwards of 25 minutes with just me and my family. He posed for pictures, and autographed the portrait I had done of him. He seemed genuinely pleased with his likeness.
Finally, his stage crew told him that he needed to be on stage momentarily, and we rushed back to our seats for the concert. I never forgot the kindness Glen showed a skinny kid and his family that evening.
In 2000, the story took a new twist.
My parents, who now lived in Florida, were watching A&E's "Biography," and Glen Campbell was the subject of that night’s show. Suddenly, in the middle of the broadcast, there, on national television, was Glen Campbell with my portrait! Since I was on the West Coast, I was able to watch A&E three hours later, and sure enough, there was Glen with the portrait. I realized then that this had perhaps been a unique remembrance for Glen as well.
So, fast-forward to August 2008. While vacationing in Wyoming, I had a semi-conscious dream about meeting him again. When I got home, I googled “Glen Campbell” to see how I might contact him.
Well, as fate would have it, Glen was releasing a new album, and the Record Release Party was going to be in Los Angeles at the Troubadour. It consisted of a small concert, and the date was significant to me, because, coincidentally, it happened to be my birthday — Aug. 19. I contacted his road manager and asked about a possible meeting.
Since this was Glen’s release party, his family was there, and the party afterward precluded a meeting that evening. His road manager apologized, and asked if I could come to Santa Barbara in a few days for Glen’s bigger concert there.
Since I had just purchased tickets for this second, unexpected show, I was only able to get nose-bleed seats, but then I happened encounter a guy outside the venue who had two tickets he was trying to sell. His were better than mine, so I offered to trade and pay him the difference. We got to our seats (real good ones now), and through casual conversation made friends with five guys in front of us. Turns out they were Glen’s golf buddies, and Leah and I were invited to join them with Glen after the show. They went out of their way to be sure we had lots of time with Glen and his family.
I have no words to describe what a great guy Glen Campbell was. He is a music legend who never let life change the country boy he always was. The world will miss him now that he's gone.
Joe Coughlin, a longtime resident of Bakersfield, owns Coconut Joe’s restaurant.