In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
Rhinestones are fake. They’re not real jewels. They’re made of glass, or of plastic. But they look great. If you’re standing on a stage, dressed in rhinestones, and the light hits you the right way, it looks like you’re made of magic. Everyone who sees you on that stage presumably knows that you’re not wearing real diamonds, but they don’t care. The rhinestone is an ecstatic simulation, an agreed-upon delusion.
There’s a reason why “Rhinestone Cowboy,” the first #1 single from longtime session guy and then-faded star Glen Campbell, isn’t called “Diamond Cowboy.” The narrator of “Rhinestone Cowboy,” struggling along on the periphery of the music business, isn’t envisioning riches or fame. But he’s not picturing himself as an avatar of authenticity, either. Instead, he just wants to play his part in the great country-music carnival. He wants a career, and he’ll do whatever it takes to get it. “There’s been a load of compromisin’ on the road to my horizon,” he sings, and he’s proud of that. Those compromises have been parts of the process, steps on the journey. This narrator has a dream: being up on a stage, gleaming in the light. That’s the song’s idea of success, of hard work paying off. That’s the goal. The fakeness is the point.
Glen Campbell knew a few things about struggling. He’d been born on an Arkansas dirt farm with no electricity, one of 12 kids. He and his siblings had picked cotton for the less-poor farmers who lived nearby. When Campbell was four, one of his uncles bought him a five-dollar Sears guitar and taught him how to play it. Campbell, a prodigy, took to it immediately. Pretty soon, he was playing it on local radio stations. But he wasn’t making a living on it. At 14, Campbell dropped out of high school and moved with some of his brothers to Houston, where they found work installing insulation. But he kept playing — at churches, picnics, nightclubs, local radio stations. At 17, he moved to Albuquerque, played on his uncle’s radio show, and got married for the first time. And in 1960, when Campbell was 24, he moved to Los Angeles, where he found a job that was better than installing insulation.
When Campbell first moved to LA, he joined the Champs, the Chicano instrumental rock ‘n’ roll band who’d scored a #1 hit with “Tequila!” a couple of years earlier. (“Tequila!” hit its peak in the pre-Hot 100 days of 1958, but it would’ve been a 10.) Campbell only played in the Champs for about a year, but he also scored a day job at a music publisher. And soon enough, he’d become a session ace, a part of the group of musicians who became known as the Wrecking Crew. In his time with the Wrecking Crew, Campbell played on some untold number of hit songs. He also spent a few months as a replacement Beach Boy, stepping in at the last minute to take over for Brian Wilson on tour when Wilson freaked out and couldn’t keep doing shows.
Almost immediately, Campbell was trying to get a solo career off the ground. A guy as good-looking and talented as Campbell couldn’t keep doing session work forever, but it took Campbell a while to catch on as a star. Starting in 1961, Campbell cranked out singles and made it, a few times, into the lower reaches of the Hot 100. But his success really came when he and the Oklahoma-born songwriter Jimmy Webb teamed up for a series of lush, considered, heartsick country-pop singles that Campbell recorded with his Wrecking Crew comrades: 1967’s “By The Time I Get To Phoenix” (peaked at #26), 1968’s “Wichita Lineman” (peaked at #3, a 9), 1969’s “Galveston” (peaked at #4, an 8).
By the late-’60s, Campbell was an honest-to-God celebrity. He starred alongside John Wayne in the hit 1969 Western True Grit (playing the role that Matt Damon would play in the Coen Brothers remake) and sang the theme song. Campbell also hosted a variety show, The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour, for three years, from 1969 to 1972. Steve Martin and Rob Reiner worked for him as writers. But by the time he recorded “Rhinestone Cowboy,” Campbell’s show had been off the air for years. His movie offers had dried up. He hadn’t released a big hit in years. Campbell was in his late thirties, and he must’ve felt all washed up. So when he heard this song about struggling your way through Nashville, hoping for something bigger, it spoke to him.
Larry Weiss, the guy who wrote “Rhinestone Cowboy,” was singing from personal experience. Weiss, who’d grown up in Brooklyn, had some success as a songwriter in the late ’60s, co-writing minor hits for people like Jeff Beck and the Animals. But when Weiss recorded his own album, 1974’s Black & Blue Suite, it didn’t go anywhere. The album didn’t chart, and neither did “Rhinestone Cowboy,” the single. Weiss was all set to quit music and open a furniture store. But then Glen Campbell heard “Rhinestone Cowboy” on the radio, loved it, and recorded his own version.
“Rhinestone Cowboy” didn’t really sound like a country song. Instead, it was a grand, symphonic pop stomper, full of strings and pianos and big, resonant drums. Campbell didn’t even have much twang in his voice, though the assertive tough-guy rumble in his delivery had made him a staple on country radio even in his lean years. Still, “Rhinestone Cowboy” proved to be a country smash, one of very few songs that topped the country and pop charts simultaneously. (It was the first song to pull off that feat since Jimmy Dean’s “Big Bad John,” 14 years earlier.)
The striking thing about Campbell’s version of “Rhinestone Cowboy” is how confident Campbell sounds when he’s singing it. The song is a total fantasy — a down-on-his-luck musician envisioning a world where he’s getting cards and letters from people he doesn’t even know, offers coming over the phone. On paper, it’s not an upbeat song: “You’re down when you’re riding the train that’s taking the long way.” But Campbell sells it as a dream that he knows will come true: “I’m gonna be where the lights are shining on me!” The chorus is a huge crescendo, Campbell shouting out that title phrase with tremendous chest-out brio while the strings swell behind him. When Campbell hits that chorus, he double-tracks his already-big voice, blowing himself up to twice his size.
Campbell’s swagger is what sells “Rhinestone Cowboy,” what makes it irresistible. It’s a great karaoke song. You don’t have to be that good at actual singing to sound good on “Rhinestone Cowboy.” You just have to have the confidence to belt that motherfucker out. Campbell had that. He faked it so real he was beyond fake.
“Rhinestone Cowboy” stuck around. When it hit, Weiss tried like hell to get the song optioned into a movie. Eventually, he succeeded; it became Rhinestone, a Bob Clark-directed musical comedy bomb that starred Dolly Parton (who will eventually be in this column) and Sylvester Stallone (who will not). And Campbell recorded a new version of “Rhinestone Cowboy” as he was dying of Alzheimer’s, including it as the penultimate track on his 2013 album See You There.
Glen Campbell stuck around, too. He’ll be in this column again.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the “Rhinestone Cowboy” cover that Radiohead played live at a Paris radio station in 1993:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the scene in the 1996 movie High School High where Jon Lovitz attempts to introduce inner-city youth to the joys of “Rhinestone Cowboy”:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s footage of a few members of Belle And Sebastian covering “Rhinestone Cowboy” while playing an impromptu outdoor set at their own Bowlie Weekender Festival in 1999: