Remembering Glen Campbell

We had spent the day at the Hope Watermelon Festival, and it was time to head back to Little Rock.

I was riding with Paul Austin, the head of the Arkansas Humanities Council, and suggested that we not get back on Interstate 30 just yet.

Instead we would make our way through the pine woods and cattle pastures of southwest Arkansas — to Washington, Ozan, Nashville and Murfreesboro — to soak up the rural atmosphere in my old neck of the woods.

Our destination was Delight.

Glen Campbell, one of our most famous Arkansans, had died four days earlier and been buried the next day in a private ceremony near Delight.

A perk of hailing from southwest Arkansas was being able to correct people when they claimed that Campbell came from Delight.

“Well, he’s actually from Billstown,” you would say with a smile. “That’s a suburb of Delight.”

Glen Travis Campbell was born April 22, 1936, at Billstown to Carrie Dell Stone Campbell and John Wesley Campbell. It was the middle of the Great Depression, and he was one of 12 children.

“Many of his relatives were musicians, and young Campbell soon developed an interest in singing and playing,” Terry Buckalew writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “He received his first guitar at age 4, performed in public by age 6 and made occasional appearances on the local radio station. The Campbell family first moved to Houston and then to Albuquerque, N.M, where teenaged Campbell began performing in nightclubs. Campbell dropped out of school in the 10th grade to spend more time on music. In 1956, he joined the Sandia Mountain Boys, a local band led by his uncle, Dick Bills. Campbell stayed with the group until 1958.

“In 1958, Campbell formed his own band, Glen Campbell and the Western Wranglers. In 1960, Campbell disbanded the group and moved to Los Angeles. He hoped to establish himself as a solo performer but found himself instead to be a sought-after studio musician and guitarist.”

Billstown is about six miles from Delight. The schools there consolidated with Delight at the start of the 1948-49 school year. Since then, Billstown has mostly been a collection of homes.

The Ozan Lumber Co. was among the area’s dominant businesses for much of the 20th century. The company owned 132,000 acres by 1956 and was sold to the Potlatch Corp. in the 1960s. As timber companies cleared the woodlands, farmers such as John Wesley Campbell turned to growing cotton in the “Pike County sandy loam” that son Glen later would reference in his song “Arkansas.”

Young Glen hadn’t been a stranger to chopping cotton in the summer and picking it in the fall.

As Paul and I headed east on Arkansas Highway 26 last Saturday afternoon, I spotted the small sign for Billstown and asked Paul to take a right. We wound down a county road on the off chance that we might see Campbell’s grave. For all we knew, it was hidden in a family cemetery well off the road.

We were about to turn around when I spotted a mailbox that had “Campbell” stenciled on it.

“Let’s keep going a bit,” I said to Paul.

Just up the road on our left was a cemetery. A wooden sign read “Campbell’s Cemetery, Billstown, AR.”

Eureka.

We got out of the truck and found the headstone for Carrie and John Wesley Campbell. Behind it was a freshly dug grave. At the head was a large floral arrangement from a Murfreesboro florist with a ribbon that said “Brother.”

At the foot was a vase of roses.

It was quiet on Billstown Road as the August sun baked the soil. We stood there for a minute, silently paying our respects to an Arkansas legend.

Less than 48 hours after that cemetery visit came word that we had lost another Arkansas icon, former Razorback football coach Frank Broyles. Campbell was 81 when he died; Broyles was 92. Both had Alzheimer’s at the end.

I was born in September 1959 and was coming of age in the late 1960s when Glen Campbell became a national star.

Campbell recorded “Gentle on My Mind” in 1967 and earned Grammy Awards in 1968 for Best Country Vocalist and Best Contemporary Vocalist.

In 1968, he recorded “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” which won him three more Grammys. Songs such as “Wichita Lineman” and “Galveston” soon followed.

The man from Billstown became a regular on “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour,” and CBS asked him to host a summer replacement show in 1968.

In 1969, CBS created “The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour,” and the program ran through 1971.

The year 1969 also saw the release of the John Wayne movie “True Grit,” based on the novel of the same name by native Arkansan Charles Portis. Campbell had a role in the movie, which premiered at Little Rock’s Cinema 150.

In 1970, Campbell played the title role in “Norwood,” which also was based on a Portis novel.

“Campbell continued to enjoy chart success through the late 1970s,” Buckalew writes. “Among his more than 70 albums are several gospel albums recorded in the 1990s, one of which — ‘A Glen Campbell Christmas’ –earned a Dove Award in 2000.”

Campbell was inducted into the first class of the Arkansas Entertainers Hall of Fame in 1996 and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2005.

In the late 1960s when Glen Campbell was at the height of his popularity, we were just more than a decade removed from the embarrassment of the 1957 Little Rock Central High School desegregation crisis. Arkansas had lost the highest percentage of its population of any state from 1940-60.

There wasn’t a great deal to be proud of, but we had the likes of Glen Campbell and Johnny Cash on the national stage.

Like Frank Broyles, who would die less than a week after him, Glen Campbell made us proud to be from Arkansas.

Godspeed, Glen.

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