He came along at the right time. No previous era could have accommodated the full range of his gifts, no subsequent era has wanted them.
In the sixties and seventies, though, when going to the big city was still something worth aspiring to for a boy from Billstown, Arkansas, he was at home.
He probably leaves millions of fans, and not a few aficionados, unaware of the depth and scope of his achievement. His guitar playing lit up hundreds of sessions and mellowed out hundreds more. I’ve seen his fellow musicians on the internet here and there claim he was the real talent in the west coast Wrecking Crew that played behind every hit-maker who recorded in L.A., back when every American hit-maker did.
I don’t know enough to confirm or deny that. I know this. None of the others were among the scant number of artists who ever went on the record eighty hits of their own.
That wasn’t by accident. However great he was as a guitar player, he was at least as good a singer. He shone–usually quietly–in the greatest era of vocal music we’ve yet produced. And he shone by being one of the very few who could blend the lonesome quality of the great country singers who doubtless dominated the Arkansas air he grew up in with the laid back assurance of the saloon singers he kept company with in L.A. or Las Vegas as his fame rose high enough to land a variety show that was required viewing for everybody who had a television in my part of the world.
Oh, and he made a few movies. The one big one was only True Grit, where, no matter what you might have heard, he only held his own against John Wayne.
Guess he figured there wasn’t much that arena could offer for an encore after that.
Of course, some might have said the same about his first lasting hit, which was only this…
And they might have said the same about any number of even greater records that flowed forth, one after another, as the years went by.
“Wichita Lineman,” “By the Time I Get To Phoenix,” “Galveston” “Try a Little Kindness,” “Rhinestone Cowboy,” “Southern Nights,”–all worthy of being signature songs for him, or anyone, and collectively only scratching the surface.
My own favorite was running up the charts in the months when I first started listening to the radio in the mid-seventies. I knew who he was–had seen him on TV. Even knew some of his songs. But this one served as a kind of sequel to “Rhinestone Cowboy” and was perhaps even more autobiographical.
And a kind of new introduction.
There’s nothing, after all, like the radio. And nothing now, like the radio was then.
Released at the last moment before the city overwhelmed the country and sucked all the life out at both ends, I still hear the final chorus as his finest vocal hour, dedicated to the small voice in all of us that wants to go back and knows it can’t–even if we found every dream we ever left home to search for.
And, oh by the way, he could pick…Like nobody’s business.
Not bad for Billstown, or a man who came to rest tonight….in Tennessee.