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Glen Campbell exits the spotlight on a high note

Swan song of the rhinestone cowboy

WORCESTER — There’s a knock at Glen Campbell’s door. Just before it opens, his wife of 30 years, Kim Woollen, calls out to her husband.

“They’re coming to do the interview,’’ she says from inside their room at the Beechwood Hotel last month.

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The door opens.

“Glen, you’ve got company. Come on in the living room.’’

Rising from his bed, where he’s been watching TV, Campbell cracks a joke: “Who would want to see me?’’

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A lot of people, it turns out. At 75, Campbell is experiencing a wave of renewed interest in his long career as an entertainer who blurred the lines between country and pop music with hits such as “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,’’ “Wichita Lineman,’’ and “Rhinestone Cowboy.’’

There’s a heightened sense of appreciation ever since Campbell announced last year that he’s battling Alzheimer’s disease.

Campbell is not doing many interviews these days, but he met with the Globe when he was in Worcester last month for a show at the Hanover Theatre for the Performing Arts. (His concert at the Wilbur Theatre on Thursday has been sold out for weeks.)

PAUL KAPTEYN/THE WORCESTER TELEGRAM & GAZETTE

Glen Campbell (shown performing in Worcester last month) revealed last year that he has Alzheimer’s disease.

Campbell is on what he calls “The Goodbye Tour,’’ which coincides with “Ghost on the Canvas,’’ a new album he intends to be his last before finally retiring.

Woollen, his fourth wife, is by his side for most interviews, including this 30-minute one. She’s a reassuring presence who never interrupts or corrects Campbell, but rather guides him when he veers off topic.

She says as little as she needs to, nudging him in the right direction. Her sense of humor keeps him in good spirits, too. When talking about how he has kept his voice in such good shape — and indeed it’s gorgeous on his latest album — Campbell says he doesn’t have any tricks. No tea with honey? Nope. How about a little whiskey?

“No whiskey! I don’t know the last time that I had a drink,’’ he says emphatically.

“I do,’’ Woollen says, a little smile creeping across her face.

“When was it then, smart aleck?’’ Campbell shoots back.

“Well, I think it was about eight years ago. You got arrested,’’ she says, slyly referring to the infamous mug shot of Campbell in rough shape.

“Oh, yeah.’’

Campbell relies heavily on Woollen, enough so that it’s a relief to see his steady performance the next night at the Hanover Theatre. Campbell is upbeat, his eyes trained on the floor monitors that presumably are feeding him lyrics. His between-songs banter is short and sweet, and his voice is strong.

Even more remarkable is the fact that his guitar skills are untouched by his Alzheimer’s. He digs deep into solos with the same prowess that earned him a reputation as a sought-out session player who, before he became a star in his own right, backed everyone from Elvis Presley to Merle Haggard. He even briefly joined the Beach Boys as a replacement member.

There’s an inherent poignancy — for both the artist and the audience — when you’re seeing someone perform live probably for the last time. This is it, you think, and it’s bound to tug at your heartstrings.

But Campbell’s final tour doesn’t milk that. His Worcester show, at least, was straightforward, just like any other concert date. There was a final bow but no extended, tearful goodbyes. No video montages showing Campbell through the years, a beacon of wholesome good looks with that golden-brown dome of hair and megawatt smile.

That humility speaks to a higher truth about how Campbell is dealing with what appear to be his final moments in the public eye. The accolades and tributes keep coming, including a Grammy salute last week in which the Band Perry and Blake Shelton sang some of Campbell’s signature songs before he joined them onstage. The performance coincided with Campbell receiving a Grammy lifetime achievement award.

Even though they were hits on both the country and pop charts, Campbell is adamant that he never aimed his songs for a particular genre. Campbell was a pioneer, but he’s too humble to reflect on that. “Have I gotten my just due?’’ he asks. “I never thought anything about that.’’

As a swan song, “Ghost on the Canvas’’ is a graceful summation of Campbell’s career. Much like his prime 1960s albums, its songs are pretty with an orchestral sweep. Producer Julian Raymond was careful not to cast Campbell in a context that didn’t suit him. The album rarely ever smacks of Johnny Cash’s final albums with Rick Rubin because Campbell never had much use for the dark side.

Instead, “Ghost on the Canvas’’ lets Campbell say farewell on a high note. If the album and its accompanying tour represent some kind of a pity party, Campbell is definitely not its guest of honor.

He seems happy. His family - including his wife and their three children - are with him on the road. His kids form part of his backing band and have a group of their own called Instant People, which has been opening several of Campbell’s shows.

Woollen says it’s a bittersweet time for the family. On one hand, they’re all together, piling into Campbell’s tour bus as they crisscross the country. But she knows that schedule will eventually slow down.

“We’re having a good time. Everything in life has its season. We’re cherishing it,’’ Woollen says. “But the next season that comes along, I’m sure Glen will enjoy relaxing and playing golf.

“We don’t have an end date. We’ll just see how long he holds up,’’ Woollen adds. (At press time, Campbell’s website, www.glencampbellmusic.com, listed a June 30 show in Wisconsin as his last scheduled gig.) “Glen said music is like sex - you want to do it as long as you can.’’

And while others wax romantic about Campbell’s 50-year career and how it’s finally winding down, the man himself doesn’t seem especially sentimental or nostalgic.

As Campbell handles a stack of his albums on vinyl, which a reporter has brought to the interview, he looks at them fondly but doesn’t say much. “I don’t know when that one was,’’ he says, looking at the cover of 1968’s “Wichita Lineman.’’ “Has it got a date on there?’’

He’s asked what he thinks his legacy will be.

“I don’t know,’’ he says, simply. “I wish I knew. I’d sell it.’’

James Reed can be reached at jreed@globe.com.
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