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Glen Campbell was America's cowboy in the bright light of stardom and the twilight of Alzheimer's

Glen Campbell performs during his "Goodbye Tour," less than a year after he disclosed his diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease. [Chad Batka | New York Times]

Glen Campbell performs during his "Goodbye Tour," less than a year after he disclosed his diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease. [Chad Batka | New York Times]

Glen Campbell had to sing Rhinestone Cowboy. Who else could have done the song justice?

Picture a young Campbell, and you'll see a shining, strapping dude in a fringed leather jacket or gem-pocked Nudie suit, a guitar slung around his big, wide collars. He was born in rural Arkansas, but with his million-dollar smile and poster-busting chin, and the syrupy strings that soared throughout his early-'70s songbook, he was the picture of countrypolitan glamor. He was a cowboy, yes, but he shone like a rhinestone. The light caught his face at all angles.

That's the image so many will remember of Campbell, the legendary country performer who died Tuesday at 81. But there is another, and it is almost as powerful.

Six years ago Campbell announced his diagnosis with Alzheimer's disease, complications from which claimed his life. He battled bravely, touring as long as he could, starring in an acclaimed documentary, I'll Be Me, that earned him a Grammy and his first Academy Award nomination. He was not himself in those final years — he could not speak well, occasionally missed lyrics and cues on stage — but millions admired his poignant perseverance.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Audiences gently embrace Glen Campbell's 'Goodbye Tour'

"I just take it as it comes, you know," Campbell told CNN in 2012, the year he was awarded the Grammys' Lifetime Achievement Award. "I know that I have a problem with that, but it doesn't bother me. If you're going to have it handed to you, you have got to take it, anyway. So that is the way I look at it."

Campbell knew a few things about strength. He struggled for years to make his name as a singer, even as he shone on guitar for one of the finest American groups ever assembled, the knockout band of 1960s and '70s L.A. session musicians known as the Wrecking Crew. He played on the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds, Frank Sinatra's Strangers In the Night, backed Elvis Presley and Dean Martin and the Monkees. He toured with the Beach Boys and Ricky Nelson.

But talent like Campbell's can only spend so long in the shadows. Over time he matched up with songs he'd make his own — Buffy Sainte-Marie's The Universal Soldier, John Hartford's Gentle On My Mind, Allen Toussaint's Southern Nights, Jimmy Webb's By the Time I Get to Phoenix and Galveston and Wichita Lineman. Though he wasn't really known as a songwriter, he so thoroughly embodied these songs through his impassioned voice and inimitable dust belt twang that it felt like he'd lived them all. Songs of soldiers, songs of housewives, songs of the working class — Campbell found a way to connect with them all. By 1968, he was the Country Music Association's Entertainer of the Year; the following year By the Time I Get to Phoenix won the Grammy for Album of the Year.

And, of course, the camera loved him. You've seen that chin. TV came calling for him early, first as a guest star and then as the host of his own Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour, which ran for several seasons on CBS. "Hi, I'm Glen Campbell," he said, introducing every episode. But by then, everybody knew it.

In 1969 he co-starred in the classic western True Grit as La Beouf, the flashy Texas ranger paired up with John Wayne's crusty Rooster Cogburn. Again, perfect casting: Campbell was the apple-cheeked, pearly-toothed, sideburned prettyboy pitted as a sleek antagonist to Wayne's gritty antihero until he saved the day with a "bully shot" at the end.

This, in some ways, was the image brandished in our minds in Rhinestone Cowboy, that of the polished patriot put through the wringer, "riding out on a horse in a star-spangled rodeo." He was a pioneer of the genre, but as the poster boy who "sold my soul to the devil in L.A.," to quote his 1975 hit Country Boy (You Got Your Feet in L.A.), he was seen by some as too slick, too poppy to be authentic, and it cost him. For decades, he drifted in and out of relationships — he married four times — and in and out of relevance. He popped up on TV and in movies, kept releasing albums, scored the odd minor hit here and there. He drank and drugged, lost his way, found the light and repeated it all.

Even before his Alzheimer's diagnosis, he had enjoyed an uptick in popularity. Part of it was due to the deep, sonorous twang of his guitar, a sound revered by musicians from all genres. Leon Russell once called him the best guitarist he'd ever seen.

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But the diagnosis shook the Nashville community, and the industry as a whole. Campbell soldiered on, playing to fans nationwide, including two emotional, sold-out crowds at Clearwater's Capitol Theatre in 2012.

"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," his daughter, Ashley, told the Times before those shows. "The other night he happened to turn my way during a solo and I could see the fretboard and my jaw just dropped."

In the face of an insurmountable illness, Campbell kept on going, inspiring millions of fans, shot by bully shot. He gave the world a fight to remember. Rhinestone or otherwise, the strongest cowboys always do.

Contact Jay Cridlin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.

Glen Campbell was America's cowboy in the bright light of stardom and the twilight of Alzheimer's 08/08/17 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 8, 2017 9:48pm]
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