Photo: Sean Flynn

Ashley Campbell Keeps Glen Campbell’s Legacy Alive Through Her Musical Gift

The youngest daughter of country music legend Glen Campbell releases her debut album and fondly remembers her dad, who lost his battle with Alzheimer's disease last August.

The Lonely One
Ashley Campbell
Whistle Stop
11 May 2018

For a daughter who shared a special bond with her dad, singer-songwriter Ashley Campbell holds onto his best piece of advice like an inspired performer who’s forever identified with a precious lyric.

“Be a super person, and a superstar will follow,” Campbell recalled her dad saying. There was no reason to doubt him. After all, her father was Glen Campbell.

Calling from her home in Nashville, where she has lived since 2013, Ashley Campbell is working hard to heed the advice of the man who himself became a shining superstar.

Glen Campbell was an extraordinary entertainer who had his own variety show, starred alongside John Wayne in True Grit, won six Grammys (plus a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2012) and sold 50 million albums. With God-given talents such as a mellifluous voice, perfect pitch, a brilliant smile and the skill to effortlessly play multiple instruments, the Arkansas native made country music a highly desirable commodity for millions of Americans and countless others throughout the world.

Many tears were shed when Campbell died at the age of 81 in Nashville on 8 August 2017, from Alzheimer’s disease, which was diagnosed in 2011.

“We’re getting through, you know,” said Ashley, the youngest child of Glen and Kim Campbell, who also had two boys — Cal and Shannon — during their 34 years of marriage. “It never gets easier, but you kind of get better at dealing with it day by day.”

Ashley Campbell, who performed in her dad’s band with Cal and Shannon during his 2011-12 Goodbye Tour and played banjo and sang background vocals on his final album, Adios, that came out last June, released her debut album The Lonely One on May 11.

Her heralded father would be proud to hear what Ashley has accomplished on The Lonely One, which includes 13 songs she co-wrote, all the lead vocals and a display of instrumental versatility that includes banjo, electric guitar, mandolin and a prized possession — a 1927 Martin parlor acoustic guitar that her dad once owned. Ashley played it on every track of the record, which she co-produced with her brother Cal.

Different sides of Ashley are revealed — ranging from the emotional reality of “Good for You” — “when you see something that you could have had that you gave up or that missed out on, and it hurts,” she said — to the pure joy of playing on the true bluegrassy “Carl & Ashley’s Breakdown”. The picking’-and-grinnin’ instrumental was performed with Bryan Sutton, her “guitar hero,” and Carl Jackson, Ashley’s godfather (“One of my major banjo mentors as well as well as life mentors,” she added) who is a Grammy-winning musician and was a longtime member of Glen Campbell’s band.

Ashley Campbell released her debut album on May 11 / Photo: Sean Flynn

Then there’s the biting sense of humor on the twangy “Better Boyfriend” (Honey, I don’t need your help to screw … in a lightbulb), the pulsating pugnacity driving “We Can’t Be Friends” and the album-closing jubilation of “Nothing Day”, her personal favorite on which she even whistles.

“It’s so peaceful and happy and optimistic. There’s not a lot of them on the album,” Ashley said, punctuating her comment with a bubbly laugh.

“I wanted to make an album my way without a bunch of voices telling me what to do from the outside. So we went the independent route, and I’m really happy with the way it’s turning out,” said Ashley, who released it on her own Whistle Stop Records. “I’m so excited about it. We’ll see where it goes. Everything you do, you got to start by being true to yourself and your artistry. I’m glad that I started there.”

It’s a promising beginning for a late bloomer who wrote her first song around the age of 15 and didn’t learn to play the banjo until she was enrolled at Pepperdine University, where the 2009 graduate earned a bachelor’s degree in theatre. As a senior, Ashley was cast in the play The Kentucky Cycle, and the director was willing to pay for her first banjo, along with three lessons so she would be ready for the role.

See Ashley Campbell’s new music video for “A New Year,” the first song from her debut album The Lonely One:

“I’ve always had a good ear,” said Ashley, who was a first-grader when she started playing the piano, then tried the guitar by the time she wrote that first song.

“I can’t even remember what it sounds like. I don’t have any recordings of it. So I don’t count that. It was pretty terrible, I assume. … I am glad that no one can ever hear that song,” she said with a laugh, adding that songwriting began in earnest after her move to Nashville.

As a high school student at Scottsdale Christian Academy in Phoenix who enjoyed performing and occasionally traveled with an a cappella choir, Ashley still placed a priority on musical theatre and acting (while later performing with Los Angeles improv comedy groups like the Groundlings). She was satisfied to let her brothers follow in their dad’s musical footsteps.

“I was like, ‘Well, that’s kind of their thing, maybe I’ll do my own thing,’ ” said Ashley, now 31. “But all paths for me led to music, I guess, in the end.”

That road was nearly blocked during her years in the school band, where she loved the clarinet and admittedly failed at the flute. “My parents never got in the way of anything that I wanted to do except maybe in band in junior high; I wanted to play French horn. My mom said, ‘You’re not playing French horn.’ … That’s the only time I ever remember them saying, ‘Nope. You’re not gonna do that.’ ”

To this day, Ashley isn’t sure what her mother had against the French horn, but can only speculate. “Maybe she didn’t want to have to buy another random instrument and then maybe have me lose interest or something,” she said. ” … Mother knows best. I’m sure she had a good reason.”

Ashley Campbell, then 16, posed with her dad Glen Campbell before going to a high school dance as Little Red Riding Hood. / Photo courtesy of Ashley Campbell

Blessed with that good ear, though, and years of musical knowledge that somehow rubbed off, Ashley said, “With my dad, everything I learned from him was just mainly watching him. And then trying to figure it out on my own. And his voicing and his phrasing on things that he would play and how he would sing. He definitely gave me a bunch of tips here and there but, for the most part, I learned by watching and listening.”

The musical bug finally bit in 2009, when Ashley played banjo and sang background vocals on Glen Campbell’s tour of Australia and New Zealand.

Diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2011, he decided to celebrate his final years with the Goodbye Tour. That was captured lovingly and honestly — warts and all — in the 2014 documentary Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me, which included many nice dad-daughter moments, and showed Ashley in a “nerve-racking” appearance in Washington, D.C. She held back tears while urging Congress to approve additional funding to battle Alzheimer’s, the debilitating disease that robs victims of their memories.

For the documentary, Ashley wrote “Remembering,” which was a song “to bring him comfort and to let him know that I would always be there for him,” she said in a handwritten letter to the public following his death. (See the video below.) It was one of the highlights of a film that was joyful, thoughtful and respectful, but also showed the frustrations of a family seeing their patriarch slowly fading away.

“I definitely think the highs outnumbered the lows on touring,” Ashley said. “I got to spend time with my dad. We were like a tour family. We went out to dinner together all the time, we were on the bus, we were traveling, and it was just so much fun. For me, the best part other than spending time with my dad and learning music was seeing how much love his fans had for him. And every night, just seeing these huge smiling faces in a sold-out crowd, it was so rewarding to get to see that and get to see my dad enjoy that.”

See Ashley Campbell’s music video for “Remembering”, which she wrote for her father Glen Campbell “to bring him comfort.”

A memorable night on the Goodbye Tour for Ashley was during one of their first concerts following the public announcement in 2011 that her dad had Alzheimer’s.

“We had no idea how the crowds were going to react or if anyone was going to want to come,” Ashley said of the band opening the show with “Gentle on My Mind,” the John Hartford-penned tune that was one of many Glen Campbell signature hits. “My dad walks out, and he just stepped on the stage, and the entire crowd stood on their feet and just started cheering. Just for him walking on stage. And that was the point when I knew it was gonna be an amazing tour. …

“Basically after that show, every show started that way. … It was incredible.”

At some point along that cross-country route — Ashley thinks it was near Buffalo, New York — she recalled going out to dinner with her dad and getting more than another satisfying meal.

“He had a lucid, very candid moment. And he just said, ‘How’s your songwriting and music going?’ And I was like, ‘Oh, it’s going great.’ And I jokingly kind of said, ‘I’m gonna be a superstar!’ kind of in a jokey voice. And he got really serious, and he looked me in the eyes and said, ‘Be a super person and a superstar will follow.’ And then he dropped the mic and walked off.” (laughs)

Another cherished memory for Ashley was at their home in Malibu when she was in her mid-20s, hanging out with him at the crack of dawn.

“We walked out onto the back patio, and we lived up on the canyon, so there were these amazing, beautiful canyons and clouds and the sun was just coming up,” she said. “And everything was just kind of that sunrise dawn blue color. Like a misty blue. And he just walked outside and was just silent and just staring out and said, ‘Isn’t this beautiful?’ ”

That, Ashley said, was how her dad “viewed the world sometimes,” and his calming influence worked when “I would be caught up with the day and busy and frazzled. … He’d notice things. And he’d stop and smell the roses. I try to keep that spirit alive.”

Now that she’s fronting a band on tour, Ashley Campbell said, “It’s definitely a lot more pressure.” / Photo: Sean Flynn

Pursuing her career as a solo artist, which recently included a May 11 stop at the Grand Ole Opry on a bill with Carrie Underwood, Ashley is developing more confidence as a singer and leader of the band rather than a backing member.

“It’s definitely a lot more pressure,” she said, laughing. “You know, when you don’t have to captain the ship, you just get to enjoy the ride and do your part.”

Following an appearance on June 9 at CMA Fest in Nashville, Ashley will play some dates in the United Kingdom and throughout Europe.

While promoting her album, Ashley Campbell is also determined to keep Glen Campbell’s legacy alive.

She and her brothers will perform on June 30 and July 1 at the Ryman Auditorium in The Glen Campbell Legacy, a musical tribute to their father that was put together by Carl Jackson, who produced Adios, the farewell album from the man whose career spanned more than six decades.

“I’m just thankful to have had such an amazing dad,” Ashley said. “Someone who just loved me unconditionally. It’s a real blessing.”

With that sentiment coming from a superstar in the making, it’s easy to imagine one beaming rhinestone cowboy in heaven whose dazzling smile just got a lot brighter.

Michael Bialas is a journalist and photographer who enjoys writing about entertainment and sports for a number of online publications, including PopMatters and No Depression. Follow him on Twitter: @mjbialas