“I am a lineman for the county….”
Those unforgettable words first rang out of the radio in 1968, with songwriter Jimmy Webb’s majestic melody gliding on the wings of Glen Campbell’s sweetly aching, longing croon into the No. 3 spot on the Billboard charts a few weeks later. It was the only time “Wichita Lineman” was a hit, but far from the last time it was recorded. More than 50 versions of the song have been committed to wax, with the remakes ranging from country to pop to soft-rock to hard-rock to soul to folk to jazz to muzak. Perhaps most significant has been the recent revival of the song, with contemporary artists from R.E.M. to Freedy Johnston to the Scud Mountain Boys hoppin’ the Wichita train.
So here’s a critical assessment of the 10 best versions:
10. Tennessee Ernie Ford, from The New Wave: Pop plus Country plus Rock (Capitol, circa 1969). A simple, straightforward recording that coasts on the strength of Ford’s rich, warm vocal.
9. Jose Feliciano, from Encore! Jose Feliciano’s Finest Performances (RCA, 1971). He may wanna wish you a Merry Christmas from the bottom of his heart, but he’s also got a fine, subtle touch with an acoustic guitar, as this gracefully understated instrumental demonstrates.
8. Urge Overkill, single, circa 1988; also available on the Americruiser/Jesus Urge Superstar double CD reissue (Touch & Go, 1990). It appears Urge was at the forefront of the “Wichita” revival. For pure wall-of-guitar grandeur, this is the clear winner (though in truth it’s toned down a bit from Urge’s usual wail, and that’s a good thing in this case).
7. Ray Charles, from Volcanic Action of My Soul (ABC, circa 1970). It’s pretty easy for Ray to tackle just about any song and put himself in the Top 10. Bonus points for spoken-word ad-lib near the end: “And the Wichita Lineman — that’s me, baby — is still on the line!”
6. Ghost Of An American Airman, from Skin (Hollywood, 1993). A remarkably well-done, radio-ready anthemic-rock read highlighted by Dodge McKay’s strong vocal performance. The relatively slick UK rockers actually outdo Urge in terms of sheer bombast.
5. Chris & Carla, from Shelter For An Evening (Sub Pop Europe, 1993). The most drastically reworked cut of the bunch is turned in by Walkabouts leaders Chris Eckman and Carla Torgerson performing as an acoustic duo. Eckman says the darker melodic turns were a result of never quite figuring out the proper chords, which is just as well, because this version brings out a haunting magic that wasn’t there originally.
4. Maria McKee, bonus track from a U.K. CD-single of “I Can’t Make It Alone” (1993, Geffen). I’m not sure whether the atmosphere here was carefully staged or spontaneously captured, but this sounds like it was recorded in a fern bar populated by about 10 people who had no idea who McKee was. The slight background patter enhances the feel of this beautiful piano-and-vocal-only version — the only one on record to date by a female solo artist.
3. O.C. Smith, from For Once in My Life (Columbia, circa 1969). You’d think the most soulful version of “Wichita Lineman” would be the one recorded by Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, or perhaps the one by the Originals, or maybe Tom Jones’ effort. But O.C. Smith far and away outsmokes ’em all. He rips through “Wichita” with a smoothly burnin’ ‘n’ churnin’ energy so infectious that he pulls off the finest musical reinterpretation of the song to date.
2. Glen Campbell, from Wichita Lineman (Capitol, 1968). There’s a reason this one was the big hit: It’s far and away the crowning moment of Campbell’s considerable career. More than 25 years later, this is still the definitive version, capable of bringing back a flood of childhood memories and an uncommon case of the chills when it reaches the line, “And I need you more than want you / And I want you for all time.”
1. Joe Reisman & His Orchestra, from Happiness Is (nine-LP compilation, Reader’s Digest/RCA Custom, 1970). What the hell?! you’re probably thinking to yourself right about now. A muzak version at the top of the list?
OK, here’s the deal: More than anything, what makes “Wichita Lineman” a classic song, and what makes Jimmy Webb a classic songwriter, is melody, pure and simple. Sure, Webb also has a gift of sorts for words — ya gotta hand it to a guy who’s willing to go so far out on a limb sometimes that he falls flat on his ass (“Someone left the cake out in the rain” from “MacArthur Park”; “Goddamn you and your dirty joke” from “Gayla”). Especially when it sometimes results in wonders such as “Love is a glass of wine balanced on the siderail of a ship” (“Asleep on the Wind”) — or, “And I need you more than want you / And I want you for all time.”
But without Webb’s abnormally exquisite sense of melody, the words would be merely misplaced poetry. It’s the way Webb works in and out of standard keys, over and around the notes you might expect, and somehow finds a musical direction to move the soul that makes the magic in “Wichita Lineman.”
As such, the potential for the most pure expression of this song lies with instrumental versions. Not that all of ’em are good: Believe me, I suffered through countless takes by the Peter Neros and Lenny Dees of the world to find one that reached beyond mere elevator fodder. Reisman’s arrangement — from the tender, countrified harmonica strain at the start, to the masterfully gradual full-orchestra climax, to the denouement return to that simple harmonica — is nothing short of perfection.