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Wichita Lineman, Barton County and a baby grand piano
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My mom graduated from KU with a degree in music education. Her major was piano and she imparted her love of music to her five children. And when dad bought her a baby grand, he placed it in our living room, adjacent to floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking our picturesque backyard. Many days I would come home from St. Pat’s to hear her playing away on the Yamaha. She was active in our town’s Parnassus club, and she and dad took frequent trips to Century II auditorium in Wichita to see touring artists and musicals. She also played the organ at St. Pats.
I took piano and voice lessons. We all did. In 1971 my aspirations for a recording contract suffered a setback when I sang a duet with Sherri Brougher at Harrison Junior High’s music concert — the song -- the Jackson 5’s “I’ll Be There.” I was there. The lyrics, on the other hand, went missing. I was devastated. My brothers? Lottery winners are less gleeful.
The music world was not immune to the cultural upheaval in the late ‘60s. I remember my older sister gaining a fondness for Iron Butterfly’s “In-da-gadda-da-vida.” We understood the title to be ‘In the Garden of Eden.’ Normally Larry wasn’t easily ruffled; Adam and Eve, however, were off limits.
Along the way, there were threads of calm, comfort and normalcy. And in 1968, it came in the form of a song. I recall very distinctly hearing it for the first time in the backseat of my parents Plymouth station wagon. It was “Wichita Lineman” by Glen Campbell. Described as the first existential song of its kind, it peaked on the pop, adult contemporary and country chart at the same time. Forty-two years later it remains a critical and popular choice — ranked as one of top pop songs of all time. Even today when I hear the song, it’s like a time machine.
A song about Wichita — two hours to the southeast of our town — elevated Campbell’s status considerably in our family. For us, Wichita was New York, Chicago and L.A. rolled into one. Wichita had Towne East Mall, was the home to Pizza Hut and another business with an unlimited ad budget — Rusty Eck Motors. Wichita is where Larry and Mona honeymooned. And so, naturally, Glen Campbell was accrediting our view of the world.
Campbell’s career went on to achieve iconic proportions as one of the top-selling artists and entertainers of all time.
Mom passed away in 2002, but her legacy continues as most of her grandchildren still play the piano. Just before this Christmas I saw Glen Campbell perform on late-night television. His voice, his guitar and the song … I froze, listened, watched. He played two songs from his CD “Ghost on the Canvas” and the melodies stuck in my head.
The next day I left home on a mission.The Best Buy display rack of best sellers had the biggest collection of trash anyone could assemble. Other than Adele, none could play an instrument or even sing. I was going to find that CD no matter how long it took, and my determination was rewarded.
I put the CD in my car and listened and haven’t stopped. My third son heard it and redeemed himself. “I like it. It sounds like Johnny Cash.” Since then every family member has become a fan. In December, USA Today music critics picked it as a Top 5 album of the year. Coming on the heels of his farewell tour as he battles Alzheimer’s, one could add this to Campbell’s repertoire: courage.
On Sunday, I watched the Grammys. When Campbell came out and sang “Rhinestone Cowboy” my thoughts shifted to Mom and the baby grand. I cried.