96: Wichita Lineman

96: Wichita Lineman

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Country Music

Wichita Lineman

Story by Jimmy Webb

Song written by Jimmy Webb

Recorded by Glen Campbell, Dwight Yoakam, James Taylor, and others

One night I was getting a special award at the Songwriters Hall of Fame in New York. They told me Billy Joel was going to sing “Wichita Lineman.” I thought, “Wow, this will be great. I’m going to get to sit back and hear Billy Joel’s version of this.” He came out on stage and started playing it, then he deconstructed the song line by line. He said, “When the guy says, ‘I need you more than want you,’ that’s kind of a dis toward the girl, isn’t it?” Then he sang the next line, “and I want you for all time,” and he said, “Well, I guess he really is crazy about her,” or something to that effect. He was just kind of probing the song to try to understand it better, as many of us songwriters do. I don’t know if I really understand the song’s appeal.

I grew up in Oklahoma, and I was around that whole world of humming wires and the trucks and trains on their endless journeys across the Plains states. I remember the sound of the wires and looking up and seeing these men working on them. I also remember seeing them from the perspective of the front seat of an automobile, cruising along in the Panhandle at 60 miles per hour and seeing a little dot on a pole and seeing him come closer and closer until you are on him and then he’s gone in an instant. Sometimes he would be talking on a little telephone. It’s a lonely, romantic, prairie gothic image. I definitely tapped into it and used it with “Wichita Lineman,” which is also a love story about a guy who can’t get over a woman.

I was living in a house on Camino Palmero in Hollywood. Glen Campbell and Al DeLory had asked me to come up with another song after “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” which was a hit for them. They were in the studio, and they needed a song. I was living in a kind of communal environment with 25 or 30 of my best friends, and there were a couple of clowns who came into my music room and spray-painted my piano green, I think, because of “MacArthur Park” — “all the sweet, green icing flowing down.” They thought it was pretty funny. So I spent the afternoon trying not to brush up against the piano and writing a song at the same time. That whole afternoon was a comedy, with a sticky green piano and several desperate calls from the recording studio.

I remember getting the first verse and a part of the second verse and then thinking, “I don’t know if this needs a bridge or a chorus or another verse or what.” But I decided to just put it down and send it over to the studio to see if they liked it so far. If they didn’t like it, there was no use spending any more time on it.

When they called from the studio, they said they wanted another “town song” like “By the Time I Get to Phoenix.” I told them I didn’t know if I could really do that. I thought maybe I could connect it a little more subtly. I knew I could do a cheap imitation of “Phoenix,” but that’s not really what I wanted. Or I could do a “By the Time I Get to Phoenix II” which is more of what I tried to do, just swinging the camera in a different direction to see what it would see.

I didn’t hear anything from them for a while, so I assumed they didn’t want it. I ran into Glen some time later and said, “So whatever happened with that ‘Wichita Lineman’ thing? I guess you didn’t like it, huh?”

He said, “Didn’t like it? We recorded it.”

I said, “What do you mean you recorded it? That wasn’t finished.”

Glen just looked at me and said, “Well, it is now.” Glen just put this big, fat guitar solo in the middle of it that repeated the last line, and came out sounding pretty minimalist and slightly unfinished. But something about it obviously worked.

Wichita Lineman

I am a lineman for the county.

And I drive the main road.

Searchin’ in the sun for another overload.

I hear you singing in the wire.

I can hear you echo through the whine.

And the Wichita lineman,

is still on the line.

I know I need a small vacation.

But it don’t look like rain.

And if it snows, that stretch down south,

won’t ever stand the strain.

And I need you more than want you.

And I want you for all time.

And the Wichita lineman,

is still on the line.

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