“Gentle On My Mind”: A Very Personal Breakdown.
A little bit about my life, a lot about the greatest song ever written.
Early in my teenage years, I tried to do what everyone does at that time and distance myself from everything I grew up with and everything my parents liked because it “wasn’t cool.”
I tried as hard as I could to fight off the hillbilly in me by cutting out country music for rock, and hip hop, stopped hunting and fishing altogether, and began hating my tiny hometown.
My mom was okay with this, as she’s very adaptable and can listen to any music I like and will take me to do whatever I may want to do, from hiking to going to a rock concert. My dad, however, is very set in his ways, he likes what he likes and doesn’t like what he doesn’t, and that’s the end of it.
In the back half of my teen years, I started to come back around to what shaped me growing up. I had anxiety issues and left public school in favor of homeschooling my sophomore year. I learned all my subjects on a trashy HP laptop from Wal-Mart’s discount section, but it got the job done well enough.
Somewhere between my junior and senior years, I became very bored with my life, sitting at home, not doing anything but playing games. I had a few friends who would be free to get together and hang out every once in a blue moon, but my anxiety was still prevalent, and I would often cancel last minute to keep myself safe, doing nothing but stagnating.
Around this time, I also began to grow tired of the music I had been frequenting. My favorite emo bands were either not releasing anything at all, or nothing was up to par with their old stuff. It became tiring trying to keep up with the ever-shifting trends and tides of hip hop as well. I was constantly on the lookout for new music to get into.
That’s when a familiar face stepped back in.
I don’t remember where I was or what I was doing, but at some point, I heard one of my favorite country songs from when I was younger and still into country; “Amarillo Sky” by Jason Aldean. I laughed about it but then really started listening to the song. Something in my head clicked, and I realized that the disdain I had grown for country music was just a facade.
Deep down, I still loved the genre that had occupied my head from birth ’til my emo phase. I began to slowly comb back through old popular country songs from the 2000s under the ruse of irony. That facade began to crumble; slowly but surely, more and more country songs were added to my Spotify rotation.
While I had finally started to regain my old love for country and even garner a newfound drive to dig deep, I was still lacking anything to do.
Then the following spring rolled around. Opening day of trout fishing season was coming up. I went every year pretty much to appease my dad, but this time was different. When we got to the first spot, I landed a massive rainbow trout, brought it to shore, and there it was — the first fish of the year and my biggest to that point.
I was hooked. My dad was on board as well, and we went fishing damn near every day that spring. Caught hundreds of fish along the way together. Over this time me and my dad began bonding more than we ever had up to that point.
We were always fairly distant, no hostility or anything; we just didn’t have much in common during that phase of my life. Now it was different, though; we were spending almost all day, every day together, doing something we both loved. We’ve kept the same vigor every spring since, and we’ve been growing closer and closer.
While all of this was going on, I was slowly rediscovering a love for my hometown, the Appalachians, country ways of living, and most importantly, myself. I began to make more appearances in public and grow a greater appreciation for family and family friends. I started hanging out with my friends more often, canceling much less frequently than before. My anxiety, while still there, began to diminish, and I finally felt like I was the true me again.
“Where in the world does ‘Gentle On My Mind’ come into play?” You’re probably asking yourself. Well… here.
One of those fishing trips during that first spring, we were on the road driving to the river, listening to our local country music station. Glen Campbell’s iconic opening plucks of “Gentle On My Mind” emerged from the Chevy truck’s speakers, and instantly my dad said his iconic, “Oh yeah! There’s a good one!”
I didn’t recognize it even though I’d almost definitely heard it before. It was early that morning, and I was feeling dreamy, so I propped my head up and began to listen to the lyrics.
I was mesmerized.
Campbell’s voice, accompanied by an almost astral, banjo-led, instrumental filled the cab, and as I processed each lyric, I fell more and more in love with the song. I was nearly in tears by the time it was over. Not from sadness, not from happiness, just from the sheer beauty of every line in the song. That is the exact traceable moment that I fell fully and deeply in love with country music.
“Gentle On My Mind” was conceived in 1966 by John Hartford. He was inspired by the iconic David Lean film, Doctor Zhivago. At the time, he was writing several songs a day, saying, “If someone lit a candle, or the phone rang. I wrote a song about it.” This one felt no different to him.
He bottled all the loneliness that Doctor Zhivago made him feel and began “painting with words.” “It was like a stream of consciousness,” he said about the process of the mere 30 minutes it took for him to finish the song. Hartford accredited his personal experiences and scenes from days gone by to the stunning imagery used in the music.
In this interview for The Tennessean in 1987, he says, “It violates all the principles of pop songwriting. It’s a banjo tune; it has no chorus, (and) it has a lot of words so that it’s hard to sing.”
Hartford just happened to be a DJ when he was doing all this writing, so he made a demo of “Gentle On My Mind” and sent it to one of the owners of the publishing company he was under, Chuck Glaser. He intended to get the lyrics out there and for someone else to adopt the song.
Glaser took the song to Chet Atkins, who was working for RCA, to sell the rights to them. Instead, RCA signed John Hartford to a deal. He recorded “Gentle On My Mind.” It peaked at number 60 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs Chart; however, it received no additional marketing push because the label didn’t think it was a country song.
One fateful day in 1967, Glen Campbell heard John Hartford’s recording of “Gentle On My Mind” and immediately bought the single to perform himself. The lyrics resonated heavily with him, as they would with anyone.
He hurried over to his Capitol Records studio, linked up with the group he was playing with at the time, The Wrecking Crew, and went to work throwing together a rough demo tape.
Perhaps a “rough demo” isn’t actually what it sounded like, though. As soon as it was handed over to Capitol Records, they did a little editing, and that “rough demo” is the recording that hit radios across America that year.
“Gentle On My Mind” went to 30 on the country chart and 39 on the Hot 100. The song was then re-released after Campbell had gotten even more exposure in 1968 with “By The Time I Get To Phoenix.”
With the 1968 release, “Gentle On My Mind” sold even more copies than the initial single. It again hit 39 on the Hot 100 but performed worse on the country chart at 44, while peaking at 8 on the easy listening chart.
It seemed as though there was a lot of confusion surrounding what genre the single should be placed in. No matter where they labeled it, though (it’s country), it was a hit with all listeners.
The song took home four Grammy awards in 1968, became one of the most played songs on American radio, and inspired over 400 different artists to record their own versions.
“Gentle On My Mind” was recorded by many different artists after Glen Campbell’s version blew it wide open. My personal favorite will always be Campbell’s version, but I enjoy Elvis’ take on the song as well.
Campbell’s recording feels the most like the original 1967 Hartford recording. It features a similar but more polished backing track and a faster pace overall.
Campbell’s version is the only one that nails the song’s right pace and overall feel. The delivery is earnest but somehow keeps a dreamy feel that just works wonders for projecting Hartford’s gorgeous imagery like a slide show in your brain.
The banjo riff that steadily plays in the background is far out in the mixing so that it feels like a memory, but it’s still prominent enough to compliment everything else going on. Campbell’s own masterful guitar picking is similar, just a steady, peaceful picking to keep pace. Also keeping pace is a thumping bass and drum brushes, which adds to the nostalgic reminiscence of a daydream.
Elvis’ version is my next choice. It took me several listens to come around to his rendition. It’s very polarizing, but I think if you’re a big Elvis fan like me, you’ll like it a lot. The delivery is different, while the backing track keeps the same general idea, albeit a bit louder, and uses other, more electric, rock-inspired instruments.
Presley’s signature, sultry voice is on wide-open display here. At the end of each line, he drops into that deep, gorgeous inflection you’d expect from the king of rock. Overall it’s just a unique interpretation of the song.
My next favorite would be Aretha Franklin’s 1969 version. This rendition offers a much more jazz-inspired track. It’s powered forward by Franklin’s iconic, powerful, belting voice. However, it doesn’t allow the lyrics to shine as much as I like from the other versions I’ve mentioned so far and isn’t even the entire song, leaving out the last two verses altogether.
Other artists who have recorded “Gentle On My Mind” include Frank Sinatra, Patti Page, Dean Martin, Waylon Jennings, and Johnny Cash. However, the most notable lately was The Band Perry, who won the song its 5th Grammy with their spin on the hit.
I enjoy their version, I think they keep the pace well, and I love the way it swells the longer the song goes on. Kimberly Perry’s voice is an excellent pair for the song as well. My only gripe is that it is just a bit over-produced for my taste.
Now I’m going to break the song down to my favorite lines, and talk a little about what they mean to me and how they make me feel. It may not be the most perfect, or technical breakdown, but it’s going to be personal, and exactly what the lyrics make me feel, as the title promised.
Before I get into it, I’d like to recommend this write-up, by No Words, No Song. It’s one I came across while researching this piece, and he does a good breakdown of some of the more prominent lyrics while explaining the song in a more analytical way.
Alright here we go!
It’s knowing that your door is always open
And your path is free to walk
That makes me tend to leave my sleeping bag
Rolled up and stashed behind your couch
These beautiful opening lines are some of the easiest to interpret for me. This is about that person you can always come back to. They’re a constant in your life. Someone that will always welcome you back to their arms, no matter how long you go without talking or seeing them.
The second part of this states that you know they’ll always be there and are never afraid to lean on them.
It’s tough to find people like this in life. The person that springs to mind for me here is my best friend, Ryan. We’ve known each other since the first day of kindergarten, and even though we had our childhood spats, he’s always been there for me when I’ve needed someone to lean on.
And it’s knowing I’m not shackled
By forgotten words and bonds
And the ink stains that are dried upon some line
This is more open for interpretation, but this is still about that same person. This is talking about how there are things you’ve probably said to them in the past. Maybe something in anger that you didn’t mean, perhaps a promise you broke. Whatever it may be, they understand it’s in the past, and they’re not going to hold it against you for it forever.
It’s also just about how in a genuine friendship/relationship, you don’t need to sign a contract to do anything; you don’t need to fulfill some clause or follow some set of rules for them to care about you.
Too often today, people fall into what I’d call “all-business mode.” Their goal is not to make friends, not to be genuine, but to schmooze people up into agreeing to do things for them. Then go on to hinge their opinions on that person based on if they do or don’t.
As grand as networking is, it’s important to have at least one person in your life that you actually care about, and they care about you, pretty much unconditionally.
That keeps you in the backroads
By the rivers of my memory
That keeps you ever gentle on my mind
The scene described here is so visible in my mind. There is an exact stretch of backroad in my home county that I see vividly whenever I hear this. It’s a backroad by the river, and it’s my first choice when I need to just go on a drive with the windows down to clear my head.
In a way I think that’s the same effect the subject of the song has on you. When you think about them, they’re somewhere back in your mind in a very peaceful place. You don’t go there all the time, but when you need something nice to think about, they’re there, and it’s “gentle on (your) mind.”
It’s not clinging to the rocks and ivy
Planted on their columns now that bind me
This is a tough one for me to figure out. It can just be taken literally I suppose, and my explanation is probably way too over complicated, but I refuse to reference any guides, and want to just stick to my own thoughts.
My interpretation is that when you’re clinging to rocks and ivy, you’re probably climbing. So this is being able to stop trying so hard to climb in life. When you’re with your person you can just relax.
You don’t have to work the hardest, or be the best, and you don’t have to be afraid to stop “clinging” to some facade, and you’re able to let your guard down.
Now we’ll start to skip around a bit
Though the wheat fields and the clothes lines
And the junkyards and the highways come between us
And some other woman’s cryin’ to her mother
’Cause she turned and I was gone
One of the more famous and talked about sequences in the song, and deservedly so.
The first two lines describe that physical distance between you and whomever it is the song is about to you. John Hartford was a genius for using the words he did to describe it. They seem random, but when I hear the line, I can easily picture a perspective of flying over all four things across miles and miles.
The second two lines are pretty literal and correlate with the first two, reminding me of a specific time in my life.
You can scoff if you want, but my first real, true love was a long-distance relationship in my freshman year of high school. I loved her with all my heart. I spent so much time just daydreaming about how I would get a job as soon as possible, and we would both fly to a spot right in the middle of where each of us lived. We were going to make it work and live happily ever after.
Well, it didn’t end up peachy as I’d hoped. She caught feelings for someone else and gave me the reality check that there was no way we could make long-distance work throughout high school.
It took me forever to recover fully, and I had several relationships during the recovery process, and they all went the same way. I would find someone new, desperately want to feel that love I felt with the other girl, wouldn’t feel it, and I would leave “some other woman cryin’ to her mother ’cause she turned, and I was gone.”
I don’t feel great about how it all went, but I didn’t know better at the time.
I dip my cup of soup back from a gurglin’
Cracklin’ caldron in some train yard
My beard a roughening coal pile,
And a dirty hat pulled low across my face
Through cupped hands ‘round the tin can
I pretend to hold you to my breast and find
That you’re waiting from the backroads
By the rivers of my memories
Ever smilin’ ever gentle on my mind
This verse is the one that solidified my love for this song forever. The descriptiveness is so lovely. I can just perfectly picture the whole scene, especially the “gurglin’ cracklin’ cauldron.”
As I mentioned at the beginning of this piece, I struggle with anxiety, and one of the things I’ve found that helps me calm down is simply hugging something or pulling something close.
I see this as a tin can full of soup from the cauldron, and I picture it being a freezing day. So I can understand how nice and calming it’d be just to pull the warm can of soup close to you on a cold day and pretend it’s the person you love who’s miles away from you.
Well, if you’ve managed to read all of this, I thank you dearly!
I’ll wrap this up by giving just a little info on where I am in life right now. I’ve been reluctant to share my age because everyone on this site seems much more experienced and older than me, but I just turned 20 in November.
Music, specifically country music, is my biggest passion, as you could probably tell. I would love to be a musician, but I suck at everything music-related except listening to it and writing about it.
I write song lyrics from time to time, but writing stuff like my Medium content and poems is much more natural to me.
I love photography and wanted to be a photographer for a while. However, photography is such an overwhelmingly difficult and expensive profession to start in, so I’ve just decided to keep it a hobby. Don’t be surprised to see some of it littered throughout my articles from time to time.
I started writing on Medium because I started thinking about becoming a freelance writer, but you need work to present when applying. I figured I’d start a blog of some sort here to make that happen.
I quickly found country music to be my niche but will branch out from time to time. The end goal is to make a living from writing, whether on Medium, as a freelancer, journalist, or any mix of them.
For now, I’m focused on getting out a story every day, making friends along the way, and having fun writing.
I’m very thankful for the warm welcome I’ve already gotten from lots of people on Medium, and I can’t wait to see where it all takes me.