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.
From its very earliest days, country music has longed for the past, for some mythical earlier way of life that may or may not have even existed. Nostalgia is baked into the genre. As early as the ’20s and ’30s, country was the music of rural people who’d moved to cities for work and who needed sounds to remind them of back home. It was music for emigrants. In that way, it wasn’t too different from, say, Irish folk music or black spirituals, two forms of music that influenced country. And throughout the history of the music, the best country singers have been the ones who could weaponize that mythology, conjuring the feeling of some lost and bucolic time of innocence.
Glen Campbell was an emigrant, a rural Southerner who’d moved to a big city to find work. But for Campbell, the city was Los Angeles, and the work was different. By 1977, Glen Campbell had been a hotshot session guitarist, a replacement Beach Boy, a John Wayne co-star, a variety show host, and a pop-country crossover king. For the song that became his second #1 hit, Campbell drew on his own nostalgia, and on the nostalgia of the man who’d written the song.
Allen Toussaint, the New Orleans R&B legend, had already had a hand in plenty of hit singles before he wrote “Southern Nights.” Usually, Toussaint liked to be a behind-the-scenes figure, someone who helped other artists in one capacity or another. That’s how he’d been involved with a couple of #1 hits — writing and producing 1961’s “Mother-In-Law” for Ernie K-Doe, producing 1975’s “Lady Marmalade” for Labelle. But every once in a while, Toussaint made his own records.
Toussaint was just about finished making a solo album in 1975, when he wrote “Southern Nights.” The song was a warm reverie about evenings spent with his extended family in rural Louisiana: “Have you ever noticed Southern skies?/ Its precious beauty lies just beyond the eye/ It goes running through your soul/ Like the stories told of old.”
Talking to Songfacts, Toussaint said that “Southern Nights” had been inspired by a conversation he’d had in the studio with Van Dyke Parks, the famously eccentric Beach Boys collaborator: “He said, ‘Well, consider that you were going to die in two weeks. If you knew that, what would you think you would like to have done?’ And after he said that, I wrote ‘Southern Nights’ as soon as he left. I stood right there and wrote it. It all came at once.”
Toussaint included his version of “Southern Nights” as the title track on his 1975 album. The original version of the song is simple and insular. Toussaint’s vocal is muffled, sounding itself like a distant memory. There are only two instruments on the track — Toussaint’s Fender Rhodes and a drummer tapping on an ashtray — though Toussaint plays the Rhodes so masterfully that it sounds like a whole lot more. Toussaint’s “Southern Nights” isn’t a pop song, and to hear Toussaint tell it, he hadn’t even considered the possibility that it could be one.
Glen Campbell heard “Southern Nights” one day when he was hanging out with his old collaborator, the songwriter Jimmy Webb. (Campbell and Webb’s highest-charting collaboration, 1968’s “Wichita Lineman,” peaked at #3. It’s a 9. A Jimmy Webb-written song will soon show up in this column.) Webb was playing Toussaint’s Southern Nights album, and as soon as Campbell heard “Southern Nights,” he asked if he could take the record. Right away, he had some idea of what he wanted to do with it. In his own Songfacts interview, Webb said, “That record, I mean, within four weeks that record was on the air. [Campbell] worked at a frightening pace once he got going.”
Toussaint liked what Campbell did with “Southern Nights,” but Campbell’s version is nothing like Toussaint’s. The Campbell cover is built on a big, flashy guitar riff. It’s warm and sprightly, with a big, clomping beat not too far removed from ska or polka. Eventually, banjos and pianos come in, pushing the song into some weird realm between bluegrass and ragtime. The whole song has a sort of theme-park Southern-music quality. Like the Doobie Brothers’ “Black Water” before it, “Southern Nights” reminds me of the music that the hillbilly robots on Splash Mountain sing.
Campbell was plenty capable of thoughtful, insular vocals; that’s one of the reasons “Wichita Lineman” works as well as it does. But that’s not how Campbell sings “Southern Nights.” Instead, he brings the same chest-out confidence to the song that he’d brought to his previous #1, 1975’s “Rhinestone Cowboy.” He doesn’t sound lost in his own memories. Instead, he sounds like he’s singing an advertisement for the tourism board of a Southern state.
There was a whole strain of country songs dedicated to romanticizing the antebellum South, and it wouldn’t be that hard to throw Campbell’s “Southern Nights” in there. After all, this song, written by a black man, inevitably has a different meaning when a white man sings it. But Glen Campbell was born into a family of dirt-poor Arkansas farmers. He worked as a sharecropper as a kid. If there’s any sort of romanticization at work in his “Southern Nights,” it’s the nostalgia of the rich man who grew up poor, whose childhood memories only become warmer as they fade further into the past. I don’t find Campbell’s “Southern Nights” especially compelling, but it still sounds genuine to me.
“Southern Nights” was a true crossover record, hitting #1 on the country and adult contemporary charts as well as the Hot 100. It would turn out to be Glen Campbell’s final top-10 single. Through the ’70s, Campbell was dealing with a string of marriages and divorces, as well as alcoholism and addiction. But in the ’80s, he got his life back together. He hosted a second variety show for a year in the early ’80s, and he helped discover Alan Jackson in the early ’90s. Mostly, he became a warmly remembered country music eminence.
In 2010, Campbell was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and he spent the final years of his life working — a goodbye tour, a documentary, a series of swan-song albums. He died in 2017. Campbell got 81 years on this planet, and he did a whole lot with them. “Southern Nights” isn’t one of his best songs, but it’s not an embarrassment, either.
BONUS BEATS: The Chicago indie band Whitney released a cover of “Southern Nights” — one closer to the Allen Toussaint original than to the Glen Campbell version — in 2015. Here’s their take on it:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the scene from the 2017 movie Guardians Of The Galaxy, Vol. 2 where Rocket Raccoon fights space pirates while listening to “Southern Nights”:
(Bradley Cooper, the voice of Rocket Raccoon, will eventually appear in this column.)