(Editor’s note: Glen Campbell died on Aug. 8, 2017 in Nashville “following his long and courageous battle with Alzheimer’s disease,” according to his family. He was 81. In his memory, we are republishing this article about him.)
Glen Campbell isn’t singing anymore. The musician born on April, 22, 1936, who turns 80 today, has been silenced by Alzheimer’s. In March, Rolling Stone reported that Campbell is in the final stages of the disease and no longer communicating. The 2014 movie about his diagnosis and farewell tour, however, is still telling his story.
Earlier this week, it was announced that Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me was selected as one of 60 finalists for the 2015 Peabody Awards. And today, in honor of Campbell’s birthday, the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum is hosting a screening of the documentary and we’re republishing below our earlier article about it.
Forgetting His Lyrics
At one point in the movie, the country music legend pauses on stage, forgetting the chorus to one of his hit songs, Galveston. As he struggles for the words, hundreds of voices in the audience respond, singing together, “I can still hear your sea winds crashing.”
With that prompt, Campbell picks up the next line in the song — just one of his 21 hits that made the Top 40.
I actually resisted doing a film about Alzheimer’s because I thought, ‘This is going to be really depressing.’ But it has actually turned my whole life around.
— Filmmaker James Keach
It is a powerful moment for everyone.
Diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease at age 74, Campbell may forget some of his most beloved lyrics, but most boomers will never forget his songs from the ’60s and ’70s, including Gentle on My Mind and Rhinestone Cowboy.
In 2012, Campbell announced his farewell tour. It is now the focus of a documentary film by Hollywood producer and long-time friend, James Keach, who also produced the award-winning Walk the Line, about Johnny and June Cash, played by Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon.
Campbell’s final tour became a family affair, with his three youngest children, Cal, Shannon and Ashley, as part of his backup band.
Campbell’s wife of 33 years, Kim, recalls the day he was diagnosed.
“Glen had just released his final studio album, and we wanted to go out and promote it when we heard he had Alzheimer’s,” she says during our interview at an Alzheimer’s Association event. “It was hard for him, but our kids are his band, and we all surrounded him the best we could. He got out there, and did it and we had a great time.”
Making the Movie
Keach and his producing partner, Trevor Albert, shot over 5,000 hours of film while touring with Campbell and company throughout most of 2012.
Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me also features interviews with other music stars who have worked with or been inspired by Campbell.
“The experience [of touring with Campbell] was life changing,” explains Keach. “I actually resisted doing a film about Alzheimer’s because I thought, ‘This is going to be really depressing.’ But it has actually turned my whole life around.”
Having Each Other’s Backs
Through the filmmaker’s lens, Keach learned that challenges linked to a disease as devastating as Alzheimer’s, which will impact one of every two Americans over age 85, can either tear a family apart or become the tie that binds. For the Campbells, the bond, which was always strong, has become unbreakable as this family has each other’s backs on stage and in life.
“Glen and his family are so in the moment, so supportive of one another and have really dedicated their life to changing the face of Alzheimer’s in America,” Keach says. “I think Glen’s legacy won’t just be music. It will be what he’s done with this journey with Alzheimer’s.”
While the whole family has been there to support Campbell, it is Kim, a small, blonde tower of strength, who has taken on most of the caregiving responsibilities. As we talked, Kim related how difficult it can be for caregivers of those with dementia to cope emotionally and find time so they don’t neglect themselves.
“You need to have a support group, you need to have friends and family around you, you need to take care of yourself and you need to get a break from it because it is grueling to the caregiver 24/7,” Kim says. “I’ve got this fabulous daughter and two sons that live nearby — it takes a lot of family and friends to juggle so you can have a little freedom to take care of yourself.”
I asked Kim how she finds her “me time,” and the former Radio City Music Hall Rockette responds with a sentiment from the Broadway musical A Chorus Line: “I go to ballet — everything is beautiful at the ballet.”
Backing Up Mom and Dad
While the documentary is about the man and his music, Keach focuses on what helps Campbell still perform in front of thousands, even with his increasing memory lapses: family.
One poignant moment during several of his tour stops is watching his 27-year-old daughter, Ashley, who has toured with Campbell since 2009, go toe to toe with dad’s musical talent. She plays guitar, banjo and keyboards, and it is the highlight of the farewell tour concert when Ashley and Glen Campbell play dueling banjo/guitar.
Just as she backs up her dad on stage, Ashley backs up her mom as caregiver to Campbell.
“It’s been quite a ride,” Ashley says. “To spend time with him is such a gift, especially when you know what’s happening. Most people take it for granted that their parents are there and with them. I’m just trying to spend every minute with my dad.”
Ashley is acutely aware of the caregiving challenges for someone with dementia — a role 15 million Americans are playing today. She is in tune with how she can support her family, and made a decision to move back home shortly after Campbell’s diagnosis.
“I’ve been living at home the last few years — since my senior year of college — to help out my mom. It’s not a one-person job,” Ashley says.
She believes caregivers of those with dementia shouldn’t stay in the shadows. “Keep your friends around you and never be ashamed of what’s happening,” she tells me. “You should never go through it alone.”
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