It’s not true there had never been anything like it before.
Fifty years ago, when “Wichita Lineman” was certified gold – the hit version of the song, the one sung by Glen Campbell – it was one of a raft of pop songs that blew straight past the Summer of Love and out to something bigger, grander. “Wichita Lineman” was just one that stuck longer.
And no wonder. It opens with that five-note bass figure and the swelling strings that will become its trademark, the sound of big skies, sunsets – and in no time, Campbell’s warm croon:
“I am a lineman for the county, and I drive the main road ...”
We know from the title the singer works for the Wichita power company: the Sedgwick County electric co-op, founded in Goddard in 1937. It quickly grew to almost 700 miles of line, serving more than 1,300 farms, and the lines mostly held through the winds and sleet and lightning of the eastern Plains.
Their workers were known as REA men, for the Rural Electrification Administration, the New Deal program that helped pay for them. After a storm in 1948, a Mrs. Loren Elliott of Colwich, Kansas, wrote in tribute:
For me there is only one kind of pin-up men.
They can all have their Gables and Errol Flynn.
It doesn’t matter whether they are tall or thin.
Just as long as they are REA linemen.
Our lineman, the one driving that main road, was imagined two decades later by Jimmy Webb, the songwriter. First, though, there was another lineman: young Dick Cheney, working for Natrona County in the early 1960s up in Wyoming. Clever Dick got a full ride to Yale, flunked out, got the county job, drank too much and wondered what he was doing with his life, searching in the sun for another overload. What he heard singing through the wire was Lynne Vincent, a brainy gal who could twirl her baton with fire on both ends.
While Dick was hanging on the line, Webb, who was born in Oklahoma, the son of a Baptist minister, moved with his family to Southern California, where he studied music at San Bernardino Valley College.
“This songwriting thing is going to break your heart,” Webb’s father told him before going back to Oklahoma.
Heartbreak was Jimmy’s thing. First he wrote “By the Time I Get To Phoenix,” a love story inside a mishmash of Western places. Campbell, a square-jawed, successful session musician – a sharecropper’s son from Arkansas – cut it and got a hit. So he asked Webb if he had another one of those songs; you know, about a town or a city out there, somewhere where all the people came from.
“I had a lot of ‘prairie Gothic’ images in my head,” Webb recalled. “And I was writing about the common man, the blue-collar hero ... And I had seen a lot of panoramas of highways and guys up on telephone wires.”
The high plains of Casper, Wyoming, or the low ones of Wichita, it hardly mattered; they were all in that imaginary West, which is where the song remains:
I know I need a small vacation but it don’t look like rain
And if it snows that stretch down south won’t ever stand the strain
And I need you more than want you, and I want you for all time
And the Wichita Lineman is still on the line.
Funny thing: That lineman, it does not matter how he works things out, whether he straightens out and marries the twirler and becomes the vice president and a pitiless mandarin; or he has a string of hits and becomes a beloved performer and a mean drunk before finally succumbing to Alzheimer’s disease. After does not count. The lineman just goes on, on the radio, then Spotify, and out there in the West that is not real and the West that is, wanting someone for all time.