In 2011, Glen Campbell gave fans a long goodbye with Ghost on the Canvas, which saw Campbell take on Paul Westerberg and Guided by Voices tunes and a lengthy farewell tour. An announcement upon the album's release that the country legend was suffering from the early stages of Alzheimer's disease only reinforced that finality. For that reason alone, See You There – a collection of raw, stripped-down takes on some of the singer's most iconic hits, which was released last week – comes as quite a surprise for Campbell fans.
"It [was] on all of our minds that nobody wants to be exploitative when there's an illness, or race against the clock because there's another album possibility," the album's co-producer, Dave Kaplan, tells Rolling Stone. "I knew that there was going to be some possibility that cynics might interpret it that way."
On paper (and often in reality), twilight albums of legendary artists revising and re-cutting their classics come off as contrived cash grabs at worst, and inessential additions to the discography at best. But the real surprise with See You There is just how well this one works. Perhaps because the project came about organically, when Ghost on the Canvas producer Julian Raymond came to Kaplan (that record's executive producer) with a trove of recordings that would eventually become the new album. In between takes during the Ghost sessions, Campbell would start singing old staples like "Gentle on My Mind" and "True Grit," in a fine voice that reflected on the singer's astounding half-century pop, rock and country career as he rides off into the sunset.
"The vocal, and Glen's guitar, were otherworldly, magical," Kaplan recalls. "It wasn't just 'good – maybe we can do something with this,' and it wasn't just 'Oh, how can we piece together a second album?' It was 'Holy shit!' Here's these gorgeous and stunning, haunting, spine-tingling vocal and guitar parts, and they're saying something new."
Kaplan goes on to explain that, while Campbell was starting to show symptoms of his illness while in the studio (and later on the road), his memory, like his voice, rang clear as a bell when the red light went on or the house lights came down. "When it comes to music, he's always remained very clear," Kaplan says, explaining how Campbell still beams with charisma. "He's got this charm about him that hasn't lost an ounce."
If Ghost on the Canvas was the singer's swan song, See You There is his final encore. Basically, if Campbell had recorded his Johnson- and Nixon-era hits like "Rhinestone Cowboy," "Wichita Lineman" and "Galveston" in an alternate dimension where ornate, string-slathered production wasn't the rule of the day, this is what they might have sounded like. "The overall theme and concept that I had was 'back to the living room'," Kaplan says. "Very personal and intimate, [without] overpowering instrumentation.
"This was just so much about his voice, and about [putting] more of that spotlight back on the simple, singular greatness of that man's voice," Kaplan goes on. "The best thing to do was try not to muck it up." So he tapped co-producer Dave Darling to overdub subtle instrumentation – mainly light drums, pedal steel, upright bass and the like – to compliment Campbell's raw, hair-raising vocal and guitar tracks, drawing out their vulnerable timbre and haunting darkness, without getting in the way of the in-the-moment performances Raymond serendipitously captured.
"When I heard [the recordings] the first time, [they] seemed close enough to perfect, to where going too far from them just seemed like a bad idea," Darling says.
To keep things fresh, and not become encumbered by history's looming shadow, Darling didn't look to Campbell's original recordings of the songs for guidance. "[I tried] to think of it as if it's a new artist, with a guitar, sitting in the room playing," he explains. "I didn't want to reference the originals because I didn't want to get intimidated . . . The one thing we knew we didn't want to do was try to better the originals or do the same thing."
For Darling, finding a way to remake "Rhinestone Cowboy" – arguably Campbell's signature hit – proved the toughest challenge. The stark version on See You There, which closes the album, couldn't contrast more with the original recording. Here it's an eerily rough, vocals-and-guitar-only take that, stripped of the original's whimsical delivery and studded Seventies sheen, sounds more like a mournful requiem than a lighthearted, saloon-ready two-stepper. "It was so hard to make something intimate and personal that was such a poppy, glitzy, glossy song, and it just kept feeling wrong," Kaplan recalls.
With Kaplan overseeing, Darling cut nine versions of the song before realizing they were running a fool's errand – that Campbell's lone vocal and guitar were already perfect on their own. Kaplan woke up one night horrified by the revelation that the cut of "Cowboy" they'd stuck with (already mastered and headed for the record plant) was a pedal-steel failure destined to draw ire from fans and critics alike. "This is not gonna be popular," he thought. Luckily, the 11th-hour eureka moment came in time to stop the presses.
"That is an exclamation mark to end this record," Kaplan says. "Because if it is Glen's last record – and who knows, but there's a high probability [it is] – then I'm OK with that [being] the last thing you hear."