Singer Ashley Campbell on her father Glen: 'At the end, we all just sat and held his hand'

When Glen Campbell was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, his daughter put her own career – and life – on hold. Now the country star’s back, downing pints and singing songs about smoking weed with Willie Nelson’s son

Ashley Campbell is certainly game. It’s barely noon, and she’s taking a break from a round of radio interviews. No coffee for her. Instead, she asks the woman at the bar what she’d been drinking the previous night. Yes, she says, I’ll have a pint of that.

Ashley is also perfectly happy to go off message. The press release for her debut album, The Lonely One, claims it is “intended to make listeners question everything they’ve ever known”. Really? That seems a little extreme. “Yes, I’ve been wondering about that,” she says, laughing. “I don’t know if it will make you question everything you’ve ever known. I hope it will help people make sense of things that are going on in their own lives by comparison and catharsis. Mainly, I hope people enjoy it.” That sounds a little more realistic.

Ashley, though, does understand the need to make sense of life through catharsis. She is the daughter of Glen Campbell, the great country singer who died last August, and she had to put her own early adulthood on hold seven years ago when he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. “I definitely felt like I was missing out. That was the time I was supposed to be getting my own place and starting my adult life. There is a part of me that wishes I could have known what that was like, but I don’t regret my decision, though I always wonder, ‘What if?’”

‘He would go on stage and nail it’ … Glen and Ashley Campbell during his farewell tour.
‘He would go on stage and nail it’ … Glen and Ashley Campbell during his farewell tour. Photograph: Rolle Rod/Sipa/Rex/Shutterstock

Hence Ashley is starting her own career at the relatively advanced age of 31, playing banjo and singing on an album that favours traditional instrumentation and songwriting over the pumped-up crossover pop of country radio. Not that she actually intended to be a musician: she studied theatre at Pepperdine University in California, then learned the banjo for a play the university was putting on at the fringe in Edinburgh (which she pronounces Edinburrow).

When she graduated in 2009, her father suggested she play banjo on his tour of Australia and New Zealand. She stayed in the band after his diagnosis, as he embarked on a series of farewell concerts. “Every day was different,” she says of those shows. “It was either a struggle or a delight – or both. There would be times when you would see him during the day and wonder if he would be able to say a complete sentence on stage. And then he’d go on and nail it and be Glen Campbell.

“Sometimes he had pretty tough shows where he got maybe one thing right. It was a roll of the dice. We made sure we crafted the show for him so it was like riding a bicycle. We got really ambitious at the beginning, trying to put in songs from his latest album, but we quickly realised that if he doesn’t already know it, it’s not going to happen.”

Glen is an unavoidable subject when talking to Ashley, which she understands, responding with good grace and frankness. It took the family a while to realise Glen was declining, she says, because of the nature of his life. “He’s always been pretty reliant on others,” says Ashley, who often uses the present tense when talking of her father, “because being a star means everyone does everything for you.

“He started repeating himself, and we started noticing weird things. Then again, he’s also so eccentric that him wanting to go to the grocery store in nothing but his robe – with seven cigars in his front pocket and his fishing hat on and his Ugg boots – was not that weird. He was kind of a goofy person anyway. So some of the things that would be a red flag for normal people might not have been a red flag for my dad.” A turning point came when Glen asked where his golf clubs were and was told they were in the garage. “What’s a garage?” he replied.

Yet he decided to remain in the public eye. “My mom was his crutch every step of the way. She’s such a strong woman. She definitely sacrificed a lot, and she was happy to do it, she loves him so much. I can’t imagine going through what she did, being with him day and night, not having a social life, because everything was about making sure he was OK. He couldn’t have done one thing without her.”

Ashley at home in Phoenix with her parents and brothers Cal and Shannon in 1994.
‘In Phoenix, none of the kids my age knew who he was’ … Ashley at home with her parents and brothers Cal and Shannon in 1994. Photograph: Paul Harris/Getty Images

Ashley remembers the last time she took her dad to see a live show: the Punch Brothers, the Americana band who inspired her banjo style. “I knew he would love them because he appreciates good musicianship, but he was pretty far advanced in his Alzheimer’s. It was hard to get him to sit down and pay attention for more than five minutes. But he gave them a standing ovation after every song. I took him back to see them afterwards, and it was really cool. He took Chris Thile’s mandolin and started shredding on it.”

When Glen died, Ashley says, it came as a relief to those who loved him. “No one would want to live like that. It wasn’t what I would call a life. There was relief. I was actually for years looking forward to his suffering being over, because I don’t think he would have wanted to live like that. When he finally did go, it was very peaceful, and I’m glad it didn’t last as long as it could have. One day, the doctors were saying it could be three to six weeks; the next, two weeks; half a day later, 24 hours to three days. So we called in the troops and everyone was around him. We just sat with him and held his hand.”

As a kid, she says, she wasn’t fully aware of how big a star her dad was. “My parents wanted to raise me and my brothers away from the entertainment industry,” she says. “If I’d grown up in Nashville or Los Angeles, I would have been Glen Campbell’s kid. But in Phoenix, of course all the parents knew who he was, but none of the kids my age knew.” Wichita Lineman and Galveston meant nothing to 90s schoolkids, naturally. “But when I said my dad was in Rock-a-Doodle” – an animated movie from 1991 – “they went, ‘WHAAAAT?’”

Glen had stepped away from the industry during Ashley’s childhood, meaning she didn’t realise his place in American music until adulthood. “When YouTube came around, I got to see all these old videos of my dad playing with Ray Charles and Johnny Cash, so many amazing people – and to see him shred, and be that star that he wasn’t when I was growing up. After I started playing music, I started realising how incredible he is and was. I became a total superfan.”

The first song Ashley recorded, Remembering, was about her father and featured in the documentary about him, I’ll Be Me. She had never intended to do anything with it: “When I wrote it, I thought, ‘Man, I’m glad I got that out.’” But after it was used in I’ll Be Me, she found Nashville was interested in her for her own sake.

But, having grown up in Phoenix, Arizona, rather than in Music City, Nashville, she is sceptical about the country industry. It’s in thrall, she says, to “mass-produced commercialism. Money. Writing songs for the sake of making money on the radio is not the heart of country at all.” She prefers Maren Morris and Kacey Musgraves to the bro-country titans, and the act that really served as her introduction was the Dixie Chicks.

“I got the Dixie Chicks’ Home album. I didn’t even know that was bluegrass. I thought bluegrass was annoying old guys in suits, you know. I didn’t even like country back then, because I wasn’t a fan of the production style in the late 90s and early 2000s. But I heard Dixie Chicks and it was all bluegrass. I thought, ‘This is the kind of country I like.’ And I didn’t even know what to call it.”

Ashley is well aware of her position of privilege in music. Her experience of touring comes from travelling first-class with her dad. The song Nothing Day on her album details such everyday experiences as smoking weed with Willie Nelson’s son. But she’s experienced the downsides, too – being accused of being stuck up because she’s been too busy clearing away her equipment after a support slot to pose for selfies, being cold-called by tabloids prying into the troubled relationship she has with two of her half-siblings (Glen was married four times and had eight children).

Still, there’s no sign of airs and graces as she puts down her empty glass. I nod towards it. She nods back. “Yeah, I’ll have another.”

• The single A New Year is out now. The album The Lonely One is released on 9 March. Her performance at the Country to Country festival at the 02, London, on 8 March will include a tribute to her father.


Michael Hann

The GuardianTramp

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