Following Glen Campbell’s recent passing I thought it was time to revisit an article I wrote a couple of years ago. When it was clear Glen Campbell was fading there were tributes from across the music industry. Foremost among them,was this delightful re-working of Glen Campbell’s breakthrough hit, “Gentle On My Mind” by The Band Perry…
I came across a great version of “Gentle On My Mind” this week. This 1967 song won four Grammys, shared between two different artists, that year and picked up another Grammy in 2014 for the version I’m writing about today. Let’s face it — a song that can win five Grammys over 50 years for three different artists must be pretty good.
“Gentle On My Mind” was written by John Hartford. Although Hartford found some success with his own version, most people in the UK will know Dean Martin’s or Glen Campbell’s versions better.
John Hartford’s song is about a restless character who finds it hard to settle in one place. He needs to keep on keeping on.
Hartford wrote the song after watching the film “Doctor Zhivago”. His own memories took over and, like every other time when a songwriter receives a gift of music or lyrics from the gods, wrote the song in about half an hour.
Brilliant songs are nearly always written quickly, the product of some kind of divine intervention. Songs which take weeks or months to grind out are not usually nearly as good because they are put together via a more rational thinking process and have much less of the divine in them.
John Hartford was a prolific and talented multi-instrumentalist who released 30 or so albums over his career. He was much in demand as a fiddle player and banjo player. His musical talents and his skill for witty, idiosyncratic lyrics were popular with the public, so he toured regularly.
He was always grateful to “Gentle On My Mind”. The flow of royalties from writing a massive hit record gave him the freedom to pursue his own direction as a musician.
Although others would bolster John Hartford’s royalty cheques in later years, it was Glen Campbell’s version of his song which first hit the top of the charts.
Glen Campbell is also an immensely talented musician. He was a regular guitar player in what became known as the Wrecking Crew — the loose Los Angeles-based group of session musicians which included Hal Blaine and Leon Russell and which played on many of the best-known songs of the 60s and 70s.
The Wrecking Crew were the secret sauce, usually uncredited, behind hits by the Beach Boys (“Help Me Rhonda”, “I Get Around” and “Good Vibrations”), the Mamas and Papas (“Monday, Monday” and “California Dreaming”) as well as the Crystals, Sonny and Cher, the Carpenters, Frank Sinatra and many more.
Glen Campbell had a level of technical ability on the guitar which few could match. He could probably have made a decent living as an in-demand studio musician for as long as he wanted.
However, one day Glen Campbell heard John Hartford’s version of “Gentle On My Mind” on the radio and begged to record it himself.
Perhaps fittingly, he worked up a rough version with his Wrecking Crew bandmates to use as a demo. But that version was so professionally done, as one might expect from a group of such talented musicians, the record company just did a couple of light edits here and there and released the demo as the single.
Glen Campbell’s version won two of the four Grammys “Gentle On My Mind” received back in the 60s — Best Country Solo Male and Best Country Performance. Hartford’s original version picked up the Best Folk Performance and Best Songwriting.
What a song it is, instantly recognisable from these opening lyrics…
It’s knowing that your door is always open
And your path is free to walk
That makes me tend to leave my sleeping bag
Rolled up and stashed behind your couch
For a song that Glen Campbell (and, indeed, Dean Martin) delivered with a slightly humorous twinkle in his eye, “Gentle On My Mind” is a deeply sad song.
And it’s knowing that I’m not shackled
By forgotten words and bonds
And the ink stains that are dried upon some line
That keeps you in the backroads
By the rivers of my memory
That keeps you ever gentle on my mind
I must say that even the expression “keeps you in the backroads by the rivers of my memory” is worth a Grammy all by itself. What a beautiful and touching metaphor.
“Gentle On My Mind” isn’t just packed full of great lyrical devices like that, though. It tells a story too. Quite a sad story. The story of a man who can’t settle down and doesn’t know when to stop travelling.
But once, a long time ago, he met the most special person he encountered in his entire life. And everywhere he goes he takes his memories of this special person with him.
We never find out what happened there…why they didn’t lead a “happy ever after” life…why she’s just someone he can stash his sleeping bag with when he needs to.
But Hartford gives us enough of the background to understand this wanderer’s story.
It’s incredibly touching that, no matter the troubles our singer encounters on the road, he carries his memories of that special person wherever he goes and whatever might happen to him…
I might run in silence
Tears of joy might stain my face
And the summer sun might burn me till I’m blind
But not to where I cannot see
You walking on the backroads
By the rivers flowing gentle on my mind
Having someone so special in your life that, no matter what troubles come your way, you hold your memories of them close until your very last breath, is a deeply profound message. I always wonder what might have happened to our wanderer without his memories of that special person to think about when life on the road got tough.
As the well-known versions of this song are all quite jaunty, people often don’t realise quite how sad the final verse is.
Our main character is now completely down on his luck. A hobo who has reached the end of the line, just about unable to go on.
He’s drinking a cup of soup from a cracked pot over a fire in a train yard…presumably all the down-and-outs pooled their resources to give one another at least a little bit of nourishment to keep them going just one more day.
Even at those very worst of times, what does he think of? Not himself or his situation. Not the people who have done him down over the years. Not the struggles of a life lived on the road…
Through cupped hands round the tin can
I pretend to hold you to my breast and find
That you’re waiting on the backroads
By the rivers of my memories
Ever smiling, ever gentle on my mind
If you should meet someone so special that, even in your very darkest hours, your memories of them give you the hope and strength to pick yourself up and keep going for one more day, you are privileged indeed.
John Hartford passed away in 2001 and Glen Campbell has suffered greatly from Alzheimer’s Disease in recent years. So The Band Perry released their version of “Gentle On My Mind” to celebrate Glen Campbell’s life and work. Their version of the song pulled in its fifth Grammy, which is an incredible achievement for any song.
The Band Perry’s excellent version, which is the one I discovered recently, is below (although the video has, for my taste, an unnecessarily long scene-setting piece up front — feel free to skip to about 0' 55" and you’ll be ready for the song itself).
As an added bonus, there’s also a Glen Campbell version which showcases his considerable talents as a guitar player. (Video here… https://youtu.be/ETkzK9pXMio — if you’re not a country fan you might not recognise all the people sat around him, but his audience is the equivalent of a pop act performing in front of Queen, Led Zeppelin, The Who and The Beatles all at the same time.)
But the version I heard for the first time the other day was the version that won this song’s 5th Grammy. With John Hartford’s moving tale of a man living on the road with only his memories for company…it’s The Band Perry, with “Gentle On My Mind” …