At the moment, I see no better way to officially kick off my new challenge of reviewing every Billboard pop single that hit number-one by paying homage to a tremendously talented musician who, sadly, left us quite recently. I’ve loved “Rhinestone Cowboy” from the very first time I heard it – which actually wasn’t until the day I started writing about it for my overview of 1975’s top 100 songs. I certainly had a lot to learn back then!
“Rhinestone Cowboy” was actually initially recorded by its composer Larry Weiss in 1974, as the leading single for his only recorded album Black and Blue Suite. The following year country musician Glen Campbell gave it a try at recording the tune, having felt a particular admiration and connectedness to the lyrics. While Weiss’s original got next to no recognition upon release, Campbell’s cover immediately became a huge crossover hit, topping both the country and pop charts for three and two weeks respectively. It certainly helped that Campbell already had quite a bit of cred to his name upon the single’s release. Besides being a successful studio musician, Campbell’s career was already successful enough to garner several hits in both the country charts and the Hot 100 (1968’s “Wichita Lineman”, 1969’s “Galveston”, and a 1970 cover of Conway Twitty’s “It’s Only Make Believe” had previously made the top ten in the latter chart), and even hosted his own variety show for a few years.
Weiss’s version of the track is well and good enough, if a bit bland. It’s a pretty standard semi-acoustic country record with much more focus on the vocalist and his interpretation of the lyrics than anything else surrounding it. Campbell’s cover is a pretty straight-forward remake, keeping the same basic tempo and format of the overall sound and feel. Campbell’s version, however, benefits from a slightly richer production value, which gently ups the bombastic quality that this song is known for, certainly to its advantage. It also helps that Campbell is somewhat of a better singer than Weiss – at the very least this recording is one of the best representations of his signature sensitivity and timbre.
But that’s not to totally knock Larry Weiss all the way down! If anything, Weiss’s lyrics are probably the song’s strongest quality. The picture is painted from the very beginning lines: “I’ve been walkin’ these streets so long / Singin’ the same old song / I know every crack in these dirty sidewalks of Broadway”. The story is one that I’m sure any artist of a certain age can relate to – years and years of collected successes, failures, and everything in between seem to form a portrait that is less exciting than expected, maybe more monotonous and “dirty”. The line, “Nice guys get washed away like the snow and the rain” is one that certainly hasn’t aged well, given the modern day connotation of a “nice guy”, but the feeling is certainly all there. Nonetheless, despite the pain and gloom that this lifestyle inevitably promises, the uplifting chorus suggests that a silver lining exists: “I’m gonna be where the lights are shinin’ on me / Like a rhinestone cowboy”.
I’m sure many have knocked this song for its totally obvious straddle between cheerful sing-a-long anthem and absolute cheese. To hell with that, I say! Campbell’s version works because of its shameless honesty. He’s almost certainly familiar with the feeling of, as he says, “getting cards and letters from people I don’t even know” – but also with the feeling that good things can’t really ever last forever, so he should enjoy the good times while they’re still happening in the moment. This is certainly all the more poignant given his later life. Sadly, Campbell announced his Alzheimer’s diagnosis in 2011, and finally passed away this past August. “Rhinestone Cowboy” is arguably his most popular track, and it certainly makes sense with this modern day context. There’s a lot to appreciate with a song such as this that manages to remain tragic and uplifting both at once, and with equal precision on both counts. As the song says, “there’ll be a load of compromisin’ on the road to my horizon”, which is as true a statement of life itself as there ever was. Rest in peace, bud.