Life on the Road with Glen Campbell
An Exclusive Insider Look

By Mariah Fleming

Glen Campbell

Since Glen Campbell made public his Alzheimer’s disease, many words are being written and thousands more will be written about him. From his humble beginnings as one of 12 children born to a sharecropper in Delight, Arkansas, a tiny, hardscrabble town, his life has been one of talent, grit and determination. At the age of 75, that determination is serving him well. He brings his Farewell Tour to Phoenix on February 18th in support of what he says is his final album, Ghost On the Canvas.

It’s a beautiful piece of work that seems to sketch out the circle of Campbell’s life. Though largely written by Campbell and his producer/collaborator, Julian Raymond the release features many colleagues and acolytes. These include Brian Setzer, Rick Nielsen, Billy Corgan, Jason Falkner, Marty Rifkin, Tim Pierce and Steve Hunter. The album is complemented by contributions from Jakob Dylan, Teddy Thompson, Paul Westerberg and Robert Pollard.

The story of Glen Campbell’s life and rise to stardom is a captivating one. His dirt-poor hometown had a population of fewer than 100 people. He started playing guitar as a child, learning from his Uncle Boo. From the age of 16, music became his lifeblood. He went to live with his uncle Dick Bills where he started playing in his uncle’s band, The Sandia Mountain Boys. From there he formed his own band, the Western Wranglers.

In 1958 Campbell moved to Los Angeles where his journey on the road to stardom began. He became an in demand session player, part of the infamous group of studio musicians known as the “Wrecking Crew.” He is in the critically acclaimed documentary of the same name. Campbell signed with Capitol Records in 1962. In 1966 when he was teamed with producer Al DeLory, they were lucky enough to find “Gentle on My Mind” by prolific songwriter and singer John Hartford. DeLory and Campbell collaborated on Campbell’s interpretation of “Gentle on My Mind.” It was a bona fide overnight success for Campbell. The rest is history. And a good part of it includes Arizona.

Glen Campbell & Ken Skaggs - Melbourne, AU, 2009

Glen's recent touring band featured musicians from Arizona. One of Campbell’s long time band members, Ken Skaggs, is an Arizona musician who started in Campbell’s band decades ago. He remained with Campbell until April of 2010. Along the way, Campbell's road manager, Bill Maclay, suggested that Skaggs chronicle some of their life on the road. An excerpt appears along with this article.

Skaggs is the associate editor of this magazine, as well as being our web master. I asked him if he would answer some questions about his work with Campbell for our article. He was pleased at the opportunity to pay tribute to Campbell. So we are honored to have a rare, insider’s look at life on the road with Glen Campbell.

The story of how Skaggs became a long time member of the Glen Campell Band begins with his music career in Arizona. Skaggs was a member of The Normal Brothers, a pivotal part of the Valley’s 1970’s bluegrass music scene. He also was part of the popular country rock band the Two Week Notice Band, and worked with the Jeff Dayton Band. Here’s the story in his own words:

Q. How and when did you meet Glen Campbell?
A. This is a great story. After the Two Week Notice Band I started working with Jeff Dayton’s band playing pedal steel. In 1987 the band entered a contest sponsored by Marlboro. We made it to the finals, which were held at Mr. Lucky’s (a then famous, now defunct venue.) We ended up winning and were awarded a cash prize and a slot opening at a concert, which featured Alabama, The Judds, Merle Haggard and other artists. We played a casual a few nights later, a golf gig at Desert Mountain. We were performing in a tent and while we were playing this guy comes up and wants to sit in. There was Glen Campbell in the flesh asking us if we knew any of his songs! We said sure, and though I’d never played any of his tunes we were able to fake it. A few days later Glen called up and said he was coming out of retirement and he needed a band; did we want the gig? He hired the whole band outright and we became his touring band from that point on. I guess we passed the audition.

Q. Lay out your musical journey here in Arizona that ended up with you meeting Glen Campbell.
A. I got out of the Army in 1973 and came home with no idea what to do. I had acquired the music bug so I went out and started looking around for musicians. I stumbled into the old Blue Goat Pub, which used to be on Miller Road in Scottsdale. I was in heaven! There were bluegrass musicians jamming around the campfires!

Normal Brother Bluegrass Band - 1973

Q. Is that where you met the guys who became the foundation for the Normal Brothers?
A. Yes, the first musicians I met, Steve Thomas, Steve Dennis and Dick Wodrich were to become the foundation for The Normal Brothers. The Normals were a great band. I really started learning how to play and perform with this group. The Normal Brothers were fairly successful for a bluegrass band; we did festivals and toured around the west playing in ski towns and Holiday Inns from Arizona to Montana.

Q. When did the Normal Brothers start incorporating a more ‘country sound’?
A. Sometime in the late 70’s the Urban Cowboy craze came along and people (and bar owners) wanted bands that incorporated the country sound. Probably a dozen Valley clubs, maybe more, featured country bands. The Normal Brothers were forced to change our sound and instrumentation to stay competitive. We added drums to our formerly acoustic lineup and I began playing pedal steel, an instrument that always appealed to me. I “woodshedded” (practiced) on pedal steel about six months before bringing it out and torturing the band!

Q. After that you were in the popular Two Week Notice Band, right?
A. That’s right. TWNB toured the mountain west and had a steady gig appearing at “The Cowboy Bar” in Jackson Hole, Wyoming every other month. The local bar scene supported many 5 and 6 piece bands; I remember working 5 and 6 nights every week for years during this time. Those days are gone but I still play locally with some of the folks I worked with at that time, namely my brother Russ Skaggs, Ronnie Glover and Ron Rutowski.

Q. When did you join Glen’s band and who was in the band with you?
A. The original group that toured with Glen beginning in 1987 was myself, Jeff Dayton, Bob Henke (who quit to go back with Goose Creek Symphony) Tom Benton, Ron Rutowski and Arvel Bird. Glen kept his music director from his prior band, pianist T.J. Kuenster. Later the band consisted of Gary Bruzzese (drums) my brother Russ Skaggs (bass) T.J. Kuenster (keys) and myself on acoustic guitar, mandolin and pedal steel...predominantly acoustic guitar

Q. As part of Glen Campbell’s band, what were your favorite songs to play?
A. My absolute favorite song, of which I never tired, was Jimmy Webb’s song “Wichita Lineman”. Glen has such a great catalog of material including all of his great Jimmy Webb hits, John Hartford’s “Gentle on My Mind” and others. Being such a great singer Glen could sing music from Sinatra to George Jones and everything in between! We did a lot of symphony dates with Glen and that was always my favorite type of show. Being surrounded by the strings and playing the Dennis McCarthy arrangements was a blast.

Ken Skaggs, Glen Campbell, Ron Rutowski & Tom Benton @ 35,000 feet

Q. What was your overall experience like, touring with Glen?
A. Touring with Glen was a really good gig; the joke was that it was really like being on vacation with Glen Campbell! We traveled very comfortably and Glen always insisted that his band stay in the same hotel as he did if at all possible. As Glen told us, he toured with Ricky Nelson for a while and didn’t like the fact that Ricky stayed in the nice places and made the band double or triple up in the cheap motel down the road.

We traveled in every mode of travel that was possible; from chartered jet to bus, to 15 passenger vans. I have pictures of the band and Glen jamming at 35,000 feet in one of John Deere’s Gulfstream jets. We traveled on hydrofoils around the Channel Islands off the coast of France. During my time with Glen we toured the English speaking world including: the UK, Ireland, Canada, New Zealand and Australia as well as performing in every state in the US and almost every province in Canada. I’m a glass half full guy and can find beauty everywhere I go but New Zealand, Australia and Ireland are probably my favorites.

Q. What's the funniest or most memorable thing that ever happened onstage?
A. The funniest thing that ever happened during a show was not so funny to the person involved. We were playing Waterfront Hall in Belfast right after it opened. During the Beach Boy medley, TJ’s keyboard stand collapsed and he managed to catch it with his knees and keep playing! I’ll never forget the look on his face but I could not stop laughing for the rest of the show. One of the most memorable things about playing with Glen is that Glen has so many fans the world over, no matter where we played, the folks in the audience would know the words and you’d see them singing along.

Ken in rehearsal at Abbey Road Studios

Q. When did you start your 'on the road' blog?
A. I got hooked on computers very early on. At some point I took over the duties of Glen’s website and it was at that time that Glen’s road manager, Bill Maclay suggested I chronicle some of our life on the road. Blogging as we know it was not around back then but I started writing about life on the road and uploading it to the server from wherever I could connect. We also had a very active fan forum on Glen’s site, with folks who’d been following him from the beginning of his career as contributors. And the fans who were on Glen’s forum could answer any question about Glen! Excerpt from Ken's "Rhinestone Highway."

Q. Did Glen ever read or contribute to it?
A. Glen is not a computer person and was not interested at all until his daughter Debby (who also toured with us) started sitting down with him and reading the website content to him.

Q. Is there anything else you want to say about your time touring with Glen Campbell?
A. I really treasure my years with Glen. I’m saddened by his recent diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, having personally experienced this tragedy with my Mother who passed away in 2009. Glen treated us musicians very well as I believe he always considered himself a musician first above everything else. He took us out to dinner all the time and we played golf almost everyday in Branson, I really got spoiled. I saw him on the Grammys and he sang great, as great as ever! I feel honored to have shared the stage with him for so long.