CLEARWATER — In some ways, hopeful ways that are clung to these days with passion and prayer, Glen Campbell can be considered a medical marvel. At 75, the country icon with that big howdy-y'all mug can still pick his trusty guitar like a much younger gunslinger, setting it ablaze with drop-jawed, delicate dexterity.
But for all the brilliant moments at a Campbell gig these days, there are bittersweet ones, too. In June 2011, the pride of Delight, Ark., announced that he has Alzheimer's disease. Instead of retiring his sequined shirts and good-time songbook, he embarked on an unprecedented "Goodbye Tour," a globe-spanning spin that brought him to the Capitol Theatre on Wednesday.
It was the first of two sold-out nights, 485 fans bidding adieu — and unloading standing ovation after standing ovation — to the Rhinestone Cowboy.
Backed by a six-piece band that includes three of his children — daughter Ashley Campbell, 25, on banjo; son Shannon Campbell, 27, on guitar; and son Cal Campbell, 28, on drums — the star opened the show with the song that pretty much kick-started his fame: 1967's Gentle on My Mind. He had trouble at the opening, mumbling, complaining the beat was "too slow," but he soon found a groove — and some wicked licks on that sparkly blue guitar.
A few weeks ago, I saw Campbell play in Shelton, Wash., where he was often agitated and distracted, dropping lyrics and taking vague issue with "the bass." It was one of his "bad nights." But Campbell had downright swagger on our shores, his vocals more nuanced, crisp jokes making up for slips of the mind.
Sure, he zinged a couple of those gags twice, such as "I'm happy to be here — hey, I'm happy to be anywhere!" But the crowd was more than happy to laugh both times.
The 75-minute set was packed with the hits that have helped Campbell sell 45 million albums and become one of country music's first crossover stars: Galveston, Try a Little Kindness, By the Time I Get to Phoenix, the latter the title cut from the very first country LP to win a Grammy for album of the year. Before there was Garth Brooks, Carrie Underwood and Tim McGraw, there was ever-smilin' Glen Campbell seducing north and south with songs of lost love, loneliness and star-spangled rodeos.
Campbell's voice has always been as cozy as his demeanor, a honeyed mid-range delivery that can go up the ladder for the high-lonesome notes. Cocktail-lounge swooner Didn't We and big ol' weeper I Can't Stop Loving You were almost flawless, sterling showmanship greeted with swells of applause — and maybe relief, too. You couldn't help but root for this guy.
When Campbell is loose, so is his brood. Before the instrumental bluegrass frenzy of Dueling Banjos, Campbell introduced Ashley as his "first daughter." She laughed and said, "Um, I think I'm like your third daughter."
The proud papa simply lifted his hands in surrender and said, "Well, I've had so many." When he had trouble spitting out a word, his lips trembling, he sighed, exasperated, and said, "I think I'm catching up to Mel Tillis."
For many Alzheimer's patients, "overlearned" skills — such as playing guitar, which Campbell has been doing since he was a pup — are unaffected at first, stored in a part of the brain the disease doesn't immediately attack. And yet, it's a mystery why Campbell swallowed and slurred many of the lyrics to Wichita Lineman and Rhinestone Cowboy, arguably the two songs he has performed more than any other.
But no matter. By the time those songs came along, Campbell had already won the night. All you could do was smile and enjoy the moment. And why not? The Cowboy rides on.
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.