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  1. Arts & Entertainment

Audiences gently embrace Glen Campbell's 'Goodbye Tour'

At Town Hall in New York in January, Campbell was on stage with sons Shannon, at left on guitar, and Cal, on drums, and daughter Ashley, on keyboard at right. (Chad Batka/The New York Times)

SHELTON, Wash. — Glen Campbell is lost.

Opening number Gentle on My Mind turns into a cruel joke as the singer mumbles and motions angrily at the amps. He tries to lighten the mood but is greeted by unsure titters from the crowd of 1,600: "I'm a country boy — I just don't know what country yet."

In the middle of a cut from his new album, he stops, looks around frantically as his band plays on and murmurs something about "the bass."

The Rhinestone Cowboy has been in the music biz for almost 60 years, performing the same songs on thousands of stages like the one here at Little Creek Casino Resort. But on this Friday in March, the stage, for so long his second home, is alien; the hits of his life and ours are jigsaw puzzles.

When Campbell and his daughter are supposed to duet on bluegrass classic Dueling Banjos, Campbell misses his cue. "Dad, aren't you going to introduce me?" He lets out a small laugh, looks down and, in a vaguely apologetic tone, tells her, "I really want to."

Her father has forgotten her name. So Ashley Campbell, trying to smile, introduces herself.

In June 2011, Glen Campbell revealed he has Alzheimer's disease, one of 5.4 million Americans afflicted by the most common form of dementia. Instead of dealing with his illness in private — the disorientation, the moodiness, the memory loss — he launched an 82-date world "Goodbye Tour." The 75-year-old wanted one last chance to play for the folks who helped him sell 45 million albums. Celebrating tough times: a country music tradition.

He filled his band with two sons and a daughter: drummer Cal, 28; guitarist Shannon, 27; and banjo picker Ashley, 25. Like most families dealing with Alzheimer's, the Campbells are facing a host of strength-testing moments as the disease progresses; unlike most families, they are suffering their slow, agonizing losses in a spotlight shining from here to London — with the main sufferer leading the way.

Talk about group therapy. Country music thinks of itself as a family, and Campbell's clan is vast, with tens of thousands of fans paying up to $65 a ticket to see their hero one last time. The Goodbye Tour rolls through Clearwater's Capitol Theatre on Wednesday and Thursday. Both shows are sold out, as many of the others have been.

One of the cruelties of the illness is that Campbell has trouble remembering great chunks of an incredible life. His 1967 LP By the Time I Get to Phoenix was the first country LP to win a Grammy for album of the year — the advent of the crossover star. He battled drug addiction and alcoholism and struggled through a few marriages, which produced five children. In the '80s he met current wife Kim, with whom he had the children in his band.

"There's no hierarchy of memories," his son Shannon says.

On this tour, which began in August, Campbell and his family play a flurry of 75-minute shows, take a couple of weeks off in his Malibu, Calif., mansion, then hit the road again. The first few shows after a layoff are often the most difficult; Campbell needs rest but also routine.

"We were nervous, because Glen does make mistakes," says tour manager Bill Maclay. "People ask us when are you going to stop. When are you going to quit? June 30 is the last date on the tour — is that the end? Is that the last one? But the answer is we'll go as long as Glen wants."

Or as long as the family can bear it.

• • •

Little Creek Casino Resort is a curious oasis in the forest of western Washington, a cacophony of lights, smoke rings and slot-machine bleeps interrupting nature. On the night of the show, Ashley Campbell, a striking blond with a quick wit, introduces herself to the crowd. Then she stands next to her father and picks out the opening notes of Dueling Banjos. The hootenanny instrumental, made famous by the movie Deliverance, is greeted with a reverent hum. This is a bluegrass sort of crowd in a bluegrass sort of place, the kind of long, plain venue equally suited for amateur boxing or bingo calling.

Wielding an acoustic guitar, Glen Campbell matches his banjo-picking daughter note for note, the sort of take-that showmanship that made him a star in the '60s and '70s. Over and over they do this, intricate lines weaving, entwining. Glen and Ash, father and daughter, flash widening grins. For the first time all night, Glen Campbell is Glen Campbell.

The audience erupts at the dexterity of the playing, but also at a seeming victory over the Alzheimer's. With the applause still going, Ashley says, "You're sweating, Dad! Why don't you take a break?" Her father is led off the stage by a handler. "Give my dad a hand, everybody." Ashley and her brother Shannon, his angular punk hairdo betraying his rootsy heritage, then set up in the middle of the stage and duet on their father's 1968 song Hey Little One. It's gorgeous and, not surprisingly, prodigious.

Growing up, Shannon wanted to design video games. Ashley wanted to be a cook, maybe an actress. Neither wanted to be a musician.

But as often happens with children of rock stars, that changed. Now they travel the country with their father, share the stage with him, watch him fly and fall. They were beside him when he played the Grammy Awards in February, uncorking a decent Rhinestone Cowboy. Grammy organizers, always desperate for dressing rooms at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, gave Glen the entirety of the Lakers locker room. "That was pretty cool they did that," Shannon says.

Shannon, who doesn't live in the family's Malibu home, initially says his father's health "hasn't really dug into me at all. Glen has bad days, but that usually means he's asking the same questions more."

Glen? Why does he call his father Glen?

"He doesn't always respond to 'Dad' these days," Shannon says. "He says he has trouble remembering his name. He says he has to sing Happy Birthday to himself."

The son grows quiet: "You never know what Dad's going to do."

Ashley still lives with her parents. "I'm mainly there to help my mother," she says. A common symptom of Alzheimer's is fixating on small mundane things in order to gain some semblance of control. Ashley told Rolling Stone her father is obsessed with air conditioning and towels. Taking care of him, she says now, is not a one-person job.

Life on the road — where privacy is lost, and pain and joy play out in front of thousands of paying fans — brings new complications.

"Before a show, I have a pretty good knot in my stomach," Ashley says. "We've been through some bad days, and it's gut-wrenching. He'll struggle with a guitar solo one day and the next he'll just nail it completely.

"I just love watching him do a guitar solo. The other night he happened to turn my way during a solo and I could see the fretboard and my jaw just dropped."

Ashley says audiences became much more forgiving once the Alzheimer's diagnosis was revealed. "A year ago, there were shows that were absolute train wrecks," Ashley says. "I was like, we should not do shows anymore. But he's doing great these days."

The crowds, the standing ovations, exclusive access to the Lakers' locker room — they're all tributes. But there's some pity in there, too, and it can sting. His kids are like the children of any Alzheimer's patient. For as long as they can have him, they want the father they had before the disease.

When told why Shannon calls his father "Glen," Ashley says, "He always responds to 'Dad' with me. I'm his little girl."

• • •

Dueling Banjos, and illuminating musical moments like it, are the reason Dr. Amanda G. Smith supports the Goodbye Tour. Why bother shutting it down when there's still so much good music to be heard?

Smith, the medical director of the University of South Florida Health Alzheimer's Center, says guitar expertise like Campbell's is an "overlearned" skill. He can still pick like a man on fire because the "overlearned" is stored in a different part of the brain. In other words, Alzheimer's hasn't found it yet.

"Five or 10 years from now," Smith says, "that may not be the case."

In some respects, he's actually a medical marvel. He's a 75-year-old man who plays like a young buck.

"As long as (Campbell's) able and not embarrassing himself, he might as well continue doing what he loves," says Smith. "There's no harm in that."

Smith compared him to Pat Summitt, the coach of the University of Tennessee's Lady Vols basketball team, who revealed last August she has early-onset dementia.

"People don't have to drop their whole life just because they have this diagnosis," Smith says. "If he doesn't recognize his problems, then he's just being his regular self. ... He just may have trouble remembering where the bathroom is in a new venue."

• • •

Glen Campbell was one of the pop world's first multi-threat stars. "He was technically proficient but also an incredible entertainer," says Shannon. "He could do it all."

The seventh son of a seventh son from Delight, Ark., Campbell was barely out of puberty when he hit the road as a working musician. In the late '50s and early '60s, he was a guitar-for-hire in a ragtag gang of L.A. session players dubbed "the Wrecking Crew." Campbell played rhythm guitar on Elvis Presley's Viva Las Vegas and Frank Sinatra's Strangers in the Night. In '64, he replaced Brian Wilson on a Beach Boys tour; he later played on that band's seminal Pet Sounds album.

Turns out he could sing, too, a honeyed mid-range vocal that was both sturdy but heartfelt. In 1967, Gentle on My Mind, with those "rivers of my mem'ry," was his first big smash. By the Time I Get to Phoenix and Wichita Lineman followed. His career dipped in the early '70s, but in 1975 he recorded his defining song: Rhinestone Cowboy, a No. 1 hit from Belgium to Boise.

He had a show on CBS, The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour, from 1969-'72. John Wayne picked him for a role in True Grit, for which Campbell scored a Golden Globe nomination.

He even stormed up a tabloid-rich personal life. In a curious coincidence, Little Creek is plastered with posters for an upcoming show: Crystal Gale and Tanya Tucker. Campbell had an abusive, drug-driven relationship with Tucker in the '70s. Gossip sheets recorded every lurid detail, the Rihanna-Chris Brown of their day. How Campbell summed it up recently for Rolling Stone: "I may have dated her."

Campbell's shine faded, but he kept touring, kept recording. His latest album, Ghost on the Canvas, is his 61st studio LP, and was recorded in the aftermath of his Alzheimer's diagnosis. It's an ethereal sounding record, dark yet peaceful. The cover art is subtly unnerving, an ungussied Campbell in front of a shadowy backdrop. There is no mistaking the ghost in front of the canvas.

It is his best-selling album in 35 years.

• • •

Kyle Cook looks down at that album art. The 23-year-old fan drove from Olympia; he bought Ghost on the Canvas when he walked through the door and saw it at the merchandise stand. "He's the last of a generation," he says of Campbell.

Cook is one of the guitar freaks in the crowd. "He's a ridiculous player. People at work were like, 'He's going to forget his lyrics.' And I was like, 'If he does, so what?' The guy's amazing."

Besides the six-string wonks in the audience, there is a new subset of fans at Campbell's shows. Sheryl Rose wanted to be here for her grandmother, who lost her life to the same disease attacking Campbell. "What a wonderful tribute to people with Alzheimer's," says the 55-year-old from Centralia, Wash. "I love the support of his kids, his family. The last few years, that's when it gets hard on the family."

Rose hopes Campbell goes for as long as he can. "He's willing to face it, acknowledge it," she says. "It's beautiful but bittersweet. Beautiful but real."

• • •

Unlike at the Grammy Awards, Glen Campbell is having a hard time with Rhinestone Cowboy tonight. It starts well, that big chiming gallop, but when he starts to sing, it goes awry:

I've been walkin' these streets so long

Singin' the same old songs

I know every dirty crack on sideways.

That last line is supposed to be I know every crack in these dirty sidewalks of Broadway.

Campbell tries to laugh it off: "Is that how that goes?"

There are teleprompters onstage, but Campbell has trouble following them. Over 37 years, he has performed his biggest hit thousands of times. Right now he looks like a late-night karaoke casualty singing a song he's never heard before.

Campbell may no longer know the words to Rhinestone Cowboy, but a whole lot of people here do. He will not fail on this night. His family, immediate and otherwise, will not allow it. By the end of the song, a swelling triumphant chorus — his crew, his children, all of those fans — has lifted his beleaguered vocals with its own.

• • •

The show is over. It's chilly backstage, so he asks for a coat. His wife, Kim, says he's wearing one. He says he can never find the coats. She rubs his back.

I introduce myself to Kim. She tells her husband I've come all the way from Florida. Rhinestone Cowboy, I tell him, "is the first song I ever remember hearing."

"Rhinestone Cowboy," he says with wonder in his voice. "Wow, what a song. Who wrote that?"

Larry Weiss, Kim tells him.

"Larry Weiss. When he did it, he sang it low. But I just sang it straight. With good lyrics, I like to just get out of the way."

Glen Campbell then gives Rhinestone Cowboy another try.

This time, he nails it.

Sean Daly can be reached at Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.