As the tenth anniversary of Glen Campbell’s Ghost on the Canvas was approaching, Dave Kaplan —whose Surfdog Records released the haunting album in 2011 — was pondering ways to honor it. A late-period landmark for Campbell, who died in 2017 after a lengthy battle with Alzheimer’s disease, Ghost on the Canvas found the venerable pop-country singer and guitarist covering songs by a new generation of writers — alt-rock types like Paul Westerberg, Guided By Voice’s Bob Pollard, Jakob Dylan, and Teddy Thompson. The album ranked Number 88 on Rolling Stone‘s list of the “100 Greatest Country Albums of All Time.”
But as he was considering how to draw renewed attention to the project, Kaplan had another name in mind: Natalie Cole, who recorded a hugely successful, Grammy-winning duet album with her late father, Nat “King” Cole. “I loved what she had done with her father where they took old vocals [and paired them with her voice],” he says. “And I just thought, ‘What would that be like if we had the crème de la crème of music icons singing with Glen?’”
From that thought emerged one of the most unusual posthumous projects in recent years. Partly a tribute to Campbell and partly to the album itself, Glen Campbell Duets — Ghost on the Canvas Sessions pairs Campbell with a head-spinning assortment of newly recorded duet partners, all on songs from the original album. The country crowd is represented by Eric Church (“Hold Out Hope”) and Dolly Parton (“A Better Place”). Rock veterans pop up as partners on “Ghost on the Canvas” (with Sting), “There’s No Me … Without You” (with Carole King), “Strong” (with Brian Wilson), and “Nothing But the Whole Wide World” (with Eric Clapton). Elton John is heard on “I’m Not Gonna Miss You,” which was first heard in the Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me doc from the same period.
Both Church’s and Clapton’s contributions to the album premiere today.
Other tracks pair Campbell’s voice with X, Linda Perry, Mazzy Star’s Hope Sandoval, Brian Setzer, and the duo of Daryl Hall and Dave Stewart (sorry, no John Oates). The album — which Kaplan admits wound up missing that 10th anniversary mark by a couple of years — will be released April 19 by the Nashville-based Big Machine Label Group.
Once Kaplan had the concept down, he reached out to Ghost on the Canvas producer Julian Raymond to oversee the new project. Raymond admits he had some initial doubts. “At first I thought it was a bit unusual to do duets with someone who was no longer with us,” says Raymond, who’d also worked with Campbell on the previous Meet Glen Campbell, which included covers of songs by Westerberg, Tom Petty, and Lou Reed. “I want to keep Glen’s legacy alive with something with quality. So I was a little worried about it and how it would be perceived.”
Raymond’s fears were allayed with his first call, to Elton John, who expressed immediate interest to adding his voice on “I’m Not Gonna Miss You.” For the special-guest slot on the song “Ghost on the Canvas,” Raymond then contacted Sting — who, it turns out, was a fan of Campbell, Westerberg, and Vincent Van Gogh, whose ghost paintings may have also inspired it. “The chance to work with three of my favorite artists is not something you turn down,” Sting tells RS. “It’s such a mysterious and intriguing title and took a few listens to figure out the reference. I’ve had similar spooky experiences looking at Van Gogh’s work.”
With the blessing of Campbell’s widow Kim, the project continued to roll along, and Kaplan and Raymond were pleasantly surprised by the number of artists who turned out to be Campbell fans. Some of those contributors, like Church, Parton, and Sting, sang to the same backing track as on the first record. “Glen had a particular and unique phrasing, as well as a country twang,” says Sting. “Matching and blending with his style of singing took some work, adapting my own idiosyncrasies to his.” The notoriously reclusive Sandoval agreed, adding her part in her home studio.
Others — Clapton, X, Brian Wilson, and Hall and Stewart — went so far as to create entirely new tracks for their contributions; Wilson turned his pairing with Campbell (who played on early Beach Boys records and toured with the group) into a typically panoramic soundscape.
For Raymond, the creation of the album brought back memories of the first Ghost on the Canvas, which had its challenges. “Glen was pretty far along with Alzheimer’s, so the songs we wrote or picked were not complicated ones to sing,” Raymond says. “They were basically verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus. A lot of those Jimmy Webb songs have crazy key changes. Something like that would have been just too much for Glen. It was hard enough to get him to follow what we were doing by that point. We had to record one or two lines at a time. Some days, he’d be great. Other days, it was really tough for him. With Alzheimer’s, you’d get a different Glen every day.”
Onstage during this period, Campbell could still be his reliable self. But Raymond also recalls his disheartening final encounter with the legend before his death. “He was just not well at the end,” he says. “There was no semblance of Glen at all. No twinkle in his eye. He was a different person. He didn’t know anybody. He didn’t talk. It was almost a relief when he was gone. That disease is such an awful thing.”
Given that Campbell passed away seven years ago and Ghost on the Canvas is itself nearly 15 years old, is such a star-heavy makeover a way to introduce Campbell to a new generation of country fans and even artists? “That would be the $64 million question,” says Big Machine head Scott Borchetta. “Some of the young artists are well versed and can talk to you about Merle Haggard or early Waylon and go even further back. And some of them don’t have any awareness at all. You can’t blame anybody. They know what they know, and they like what they like. A lot of people will discover Glen because of these other artists, and we’re fine with that.”
As far as how the public will receive such a left-field project, Raymond admits he isn’t sure. “I have no idea what to expect,” he says. “I’m sure somebody will think it’s morbid or weird. But the bottom line is that we didn’t twist anyone’s arm to do it. Nobody did it for money. Everyone was there out of love for Glen.”