- - Monday, June 15, 2015

Songwriter Jimmy Webb posted a Facebook update on country star Glen Campbell the other day that brought to mind the famous quote “Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.”

The much-honored Mr. Campbell, who began making history in 1967 by winning four Grammys, is in a special facility for treatment of Alzheimer’s disease. Mr. Webb’s post contradicted news stories that called into question the quality of Mr. Campbell’s care.

Glen is currently residing in a memory support community — it reminded me of one of the nice hotels he would stay at while on tour,” he wrote. “[His wife] Kim has found this place for Glen that is safe, where he is cared for 24 hours a day. He is loved. He is cared for. He is respected. And most of all, he has his dignity. We can all be comforted by that.”

It was especially interesting to read about Mr. Campbell last week and think about country music history just as the CMA Music Festival — arguably the premier music event for the genre — was underway. The annual four-day festival, hosted by the Country Music Association in Nashville, draws thousands of fans from around the world to celebrate artists.

As I looked at press photos and videos of thousands of fans crowded together in the hot, humid weather to watch performances by Blake Shelton, Brad Paisley, Carrie Underwood and dozens of others, I couldn’t help but look ahead and ask whether those same artists will have star power in 2025. Will anyone remember these “historic” days, these “legendary” performers — except as interesting footnotes to country music’s long story?

Recent experience suggests the answer is no.

Consider Mr. Campbell, one of hundreds of country music stars who burned brightly then all but disappeared in a heartbeat. Those of a certain age remember that Mr. Campbell was both a music star and an in-demand television host after he led the 1968 summer replacement for “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” on CBS. The network then developed “The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour,” which aired from 1968 to 1972. Linda Ronstadt, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and even the teen pop idols The Monkees were among the big-name guests. Even after the show was canceled, Mr. Campbell found success with musical hits (“Southern Nights,” “Rhinestone Cowboy”) and television appearances.

That is a long way of saying that even though major-name artists such as Keith Urban have spoken about Mr. Campbell’s influence on them, one wonders whether any of this year’s CMA Fest attendees and other contemporary fans would recognize Mr. Campbell’s name.

Although a wide demographic of rock fans clamor for concerts by the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and other vintage performers, most country hit-makers of days past are relegated to playing small clubs, state fairs and other tiny venues — if they can secure bookings at all.

It wasn’t until Mr. Paisley invited Grand Ole Opry great ‘Little’ Jimmy Dickens to join him on stage during his concerts and recorded a video with country stars Alabama that contemporary fans embraced them. Even that hasn’t worked for some.

That was driven home to me in 2011 when Mr. Webb led a Campbell tribute at CMA. I was on the telephone with a 20-something editor for a major country music site as Mr. Urban and Mr. Paisley played a medley of Webb-Campbell songs, including “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” and “Wichita Linemen.”

Chills ran up my spine as I listened to the stars, who both cited Mr. Campbell as an idol and inspiration, perform spot-on renditions. Mr. Campbell was shown in the audience fighting back tears as he listened.

“Yeah, you know, I don’t really know anything about him,” the editor said as I remarked on the music.

As if hearing her words, the show’s producers went to commercial break just as Mr. Campbell took the stage.

So much for history.

In a June 9 New Yorker story “No More Country for Old Men,” author David Cantwell writes compellingly that adult topics — divorce, marital discord, reflections on life — once set country music apart from rock and other genres. It was music by adults, for adults, even if the adults were young. Loretta Lynn was just a teen when she began to pursue stardom.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that today’s country music focuses on boozing and hookups now that today’s young adults grow increasingly infantilized. Mick Jagger and other vintage performers always performed youth-centric songs and continue to do so as they enter their 70s.

Maybe contemporary country rockers will follow suit, singing about pickups and kegs well after AARP has sent them multiple membership applications. Maybe the country music Mr. Campbell has made famous will simply become extinct.

That’s a shame for music fans who find comfort and kinship in truly adult music.

“The last thing he said to me when it was time for us to go was, ‘Was it a good one?’ like he used to say to me at the end of a concert,” Mr. Webb wrote about the end of his visit with Mr. Campbell.

Yes, it sure was.

And we can only hope that those who don’t know their history are lucky enough to repeat it.

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