Brad Paisley on Glen Campbell: 'He's a Mount Rushmore-Type Act for Country'

My first public performance was in church at 10 years old and I sang two songs, “Life’s Railway to Heaven” by Johnny Cash and “Try a Little Kindness” by Glen Campbell. Glen was the first of his kind in [the country] format, which was guitar player, personality and singer. He’d sing, he’d play the fire out of the guitar, he’d tell a joke and then he’d be back to singing. It was like, “OK, that’s what I want to do.” I really dove in and studied some of his old records. That music is just so rich.

From Glen, I learned that you can use a guitar as a way of entertaining people, especially live. It was interesting because a lot of his records didn’t have a lot of guitar on them. Every now and then there would be and the guitar parts were iconic and classic, but understated. It was live where he threw out the rulebook and used it as another way to reach the audience.

I opened for him as a kid at the Capitol Music Hall [in Wheeling, W. Va.]. I was 15 or 16. I remember him coming into town and playing the fire out of the guitar. I remember the way that he played things. “Gentle On My Mind” doesn’t really have a guitar solo in it typically and he’d throw one in.

He didn’t have what you would consider a traditional country voice. He had somewhere between Eddy Arnold and the countrier side of things. He was just velvet. He would hit the highest notes effortlessly. You were never worried as a listener, thinking, “Well, that’s really high. He shouldn’t be going there. How’s he going to hit that?” You weren’t thinking that because it seemed like there’s no limit. It didn’t have edges like a Johnny Cash or Merle. I think he brought a lot of people to country music because he was just so palatable,. That shouldn’t be mistaken for saccharine in any way because it was not anything but brilliant.

One of my favorite interactions with him was at the Mohegan Sun Casino. He was playing in the theater and I was playing in the arena. When he got done with his show, he came over and played the encore with me on mine, which was amazing, mind-blowing for me and fun. It was before Alzheimer’s, so it was probably 10 years ago at least. He's just a really great guy. I forget what all we did, but I know we did “Folsom Prison Blues,” just as a jam, and he could play the guitar with anyone.

I got involved in the CMA Awards 2011 tribute to him. They had myself, Vince [Gill]  and Keith [Urban] do this because we were all heavily influenced by him and we were products of the path that he forged. He’s a Mount Rushmore-type act for us. There was a time when he would have been anyone’s gateway drug into our format.

I saw him in California in a small theater on the Goodbye tour. He had a great night. He would turn to Ashley [Campbell] and say, “Didn’t we do this already?” and she’d say, “No dad, we haven’t done this one yet.”  [He wouldn’t] remember if he’d done the song or not, but he was able to play and go into improvisation that all of us who don’t have Alzheimer’s have trouble doing. Even in the end, he was playing and singing and improvising and being the Glen Campbell that I wanted to emulate.

Thank you, Glen, for representing country music for an era. Every format wanted to claim him, but he was ours, they can’t have him. I think there was many a time when a person would claim to not like country music and also have Glen Campbell records -- you don’t get to do both.

As told to Melinda Newman.