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Honoring A Legend—A Tribute To Cowboy Jack Clement by Colin Escott
Give Me Flowers While I’m Living, an ancient pop song adapted by country singers from the Carter Family to Flatt & Scruggs, might have been the keynote for Honoring a Legend—A Tribute to Cowboy Jack Clement. Held at one of the Grand Ole Opry’s early homes, Nashville’s War Memorial auditorium, on January 30, it was a tribute so fulsome you’d believe you were at a memorial service. Instead, the Cowboy made his entrance ahead of a polka band, and sat in an armchair as a dizzying array of artists, friends, and dignitaries sung his songs and his praises. The audience included Sam Phillips’ longtime companion, Sally Wilbourn, and his son, Jerry, who were seated with Scotty Moore and his wife. Managers, label guys, songwriters, musicians, and journalists turned out in profusion. All proceeds went to Clement’s favorite charity, one that provides healthcare for musicians who have fallen upon hard times.
It’s fairly well known that Clement has suffered reversals of fortune lately. His home-studio, the Cowboy Arms Hotel and Recording Spa, was partly destroyed by fire in June 2011. Late last year, he received a diagnosis of terminal liver cancer. He still hosts his satellite radio show on Sirius-XM but it’s no secret that his mental acuity has been slipping now that he’s in his eighty-second year. “When all else fails,” Clement is fond of saying, “get lucky.” It might take more than luck to save the Cowboy at this point.
Some told stories. Allen Reynolds, who went on to produce Garth Brooks, explained how Jack Clement became Cowboy, a story too long to reprise. Dickey Lee said that Clement was like Moses leading his people, including himself and Reynolds, from Memphis to Beaumont to Nashville. Producer Jim Rooney, for many years an eye-witness to the goings on at the Cowboy Arms, spoke at length, and Peter Guralnick drew parallels between Clement and his muse, William Shakespeare. Those who couldn’t be there sent video tribs, so we heard from President Bill Clinton, Marty Stuart, U2’s Bono (Clement produced part of U2’s ‘Rattle And Hum’), producer Rick Rubin (who masterminded Johnny Cash’s late career revival), and actors Ted Danson, Mary Steenburgen, John C. Reilly and Dennis Quaid. Actress Connie Britton, currently starring in ABC’s prime-time soap opera ‘Nashville’ read a letter from Michelle Obama. A filmed tribute from today’s Teenage Queen, Taylor Swift, hit a surreal note. One remarkable absence was Don Williams, who’d been plucked from obscurity by Clement and promoted to stardom. Apparently, either Williams or Clement could not set aside the rancor with which they’d parted. The other notable no-show on film or in person was Jerry Lee Lewis, who might still be in Louisiana if not for Clement.
Nearly everyone was confined to one song, all of them written, produced or published by Clement. Shawn Camp and Billy Burnette kicked off with Billy Riley’s Red Hot. Clement had come to Sun with Riley’s tapes, parlaying them into a job for himself and a contract for Riley. Bluegrass star Del McCoury sung It’ll Be Me, the song Clement wrote for Jerry Lee Lewis. John Prine probably took the evening’s honors with a vocal-guitar version of Ballad Of A Teenage Queen, somehow alchemizing Clement’s confection into an Appalachian ballad. Bluegrassers Tim O’Brien and Sam Bush did Miller’s Cave and Dirty Old Egg-Sucking Dog. Dickey Lee sang his retirement account, She Thinks I Still Care, published by Clement and pitched by him to George Jones. Charley Pride, whose career as country music’s only African American superstar is a testament to Clement’s eclecticism, was the night’s only artist to perform two songs. Vince Gill sang one of the songs that Clement cowrote for Pride, Does My Ring Hurt Your Finger. The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach and Nashville up-and-comer Nikki Lane harmonized on Clement’s most revealing song, Just Someone I Used To Know. Jakob Dylan sang Waymore’s Blues, a song Clement produced for Waylon Jennings. Rodney Crowell and his former bandleader Emmylou Harris harmonized on an Allen Reynolds song that Clement produced for Waylon, Dreaming My Dreams With You. Kris Kristofferson took the stage, looked at Clement and said, “I owe every good thing that ever happened in my life to Jack,” before singing Big River with W.S. Holland on the snare. Buddy Miller, T-Bone Burnett, and John Hiatt closed out the tributes with I Guess Things Happen That Way and Amanda. “Jack Clement isn’t in the Country Music Hall of Fame? What . . . the . . . fuck!” said Burnett in closing.
No one knew if Clement himself would take the stage, but with some uncertainty he did. Seated precariously on a bar stool, he picked up a guitar. “Now what?” he said. “Relax!” yelled someone in the audience, parroting one of Clement’s signature lines. Clement sang When I Dream with touching frailty before gaining strength on Good Hearted Woman, Gone Girl, and Brazil, closing with the Rolling Stones’ No Expectations (“I’ve got no expectations to pass through here again.”) With that, he exited the room to a standing ovation, leaving everyone in the audience feeling that this would be their last glimpse of the Cowboy.
JACK CLEMENT: Everybody Loves A Nut
Martin Hawkins and Colin Escott
Jack Henderson Clement is one of the few people associated with Sun Records who are more famous for what they did after the Sun years than during the heyday of rockabilly. Clement has been recognised as a highly talented record producer, musician, occasional recording artist and genuine ‘character’ through over six decades. Known as ‘the minstrel,’ or ‘cowboy,’ Clement has made his name largely in country music, discovering Charley Pride and Don Williams and delivering their music to a world audience, and becoming a focus for those musicians on the ‘alternative’ side of Nashville. Clement played an important but subordinate role at Sun between 1956 and 1958 as songwriter, studio engineer and musical catalyst. Through this time, he was constantly at odds with Sam Phillips about wanting to develop the Sun sound, to make it more ‘musical.’ It is entirely possible that Johnny Cash would not have broken into the pop market in such a big way without Jack Clement.
Born in Whitehaven, Memphis on April 5, 1931, Clement lived there until 1948 when he signed up for a four year stint in the U.S. Marines. At home, he’d loved music of all kinds but especially the radio broadcasts of Roy Acuff and Merle Travis. The guitar wizardry of Travis taught him that music could be either simple or complicated but that it had to be good. He would never tolerate second-raters even when recording the simplest of three-chord rockers. He couldn’t get to see Merle Travis perform, but he did go down to Smilin’ Eddie Hill’s ‘High Noon Roundup’ show which took place every day in a Memphis department store window and went out over radio WMC. He would join the crowd around the store and listen to Hill, Harmonica Frank, Slim Rhodes, Wayne Raney and the Delmore Brothers, and especially to the Louvin Brothers’ light harmonies and plaintive hill-country songs. The Marine base where Clement was stationed was just outside Washington, D.C., and here late in 1948 he was first exposed to bluegrass music. “That was when I fell in love with the five-string banjo,” he recalled, “and I just had to get one and practice on it straight away.”
Soon, he was proficient enough to play duets with Roy Clark, later a country superstar but then a resident artist at a Washington club called ‘The Famous.’ On Saturday nights, he would travel down to Maryland with Scotty Stoneman’s band. Scotty was the mainstay of the popular Stonemans. He played fiddle, with mandolin, banjo and bass support from Jack Clement, Buzz Busby and Jimmy Stoneman. The group was completed by Ralph Jones on dobro and Clement recalls Jones being one of the finest oldtime country musicians he ever knew. In 1952, Jack returned briefly to Memphis. Soon, he was off to Wheeling, West Virginia with Buzz Busby doing, “a bluegrass comedy duet thing, kinda like Homer & Jethro.” Also at that time Jack played in Baltimore and Boston and he made his first record. “This was in ’53. We had been playing a radio show in Baltimore when Aubrey Mayhew, who managed Hawkshaw Hawkins, asked us to do a show on his WCOP ‘Hayloft Jamboree’ in Boston. While we were doing that James Daliano, a famous french horn player, came in and said he wanted to record us for his Sheraton label. Daliano was the owner but he let Aubrey run the label. We recorded my first two published songs, ‘I Can’t Say Nothing At All’ and ‘I Think I’ll Write A Song.’ They were by Buzz and Jack, and we did them in the style of Webb Pierce.”
Sheraton Records only distributed locally in the north-east, so nothing came of this development and Jack got tired of the duo. Being a developing ‘crazy,’ he went off to join an Hawaiian band in Washington. He then wound up back in Memphis in 1954. That year he answered an advert for trainee dance instructors and he became an employee of the Arthur Murray School of Dancing on Main Street. He also went to the University of Memphis to study English.
On evenings and weekends, he played shows with a western-swing influenced country band run by a pal of his, truck driver Slim Wallace. When they played the Eagles Nest in Memphis, a young Elvis Presley filled in during their break time. Wallace’s Dixie Ramblers played a regular spot at a club in Paragould, Arkansas, and while returning one night Jack and Slim plotted their entry into the record business. Slim put up most of the 450 dollars they needed to buy an old Magnacord tape deck from DJ ‘Sleepy Eyed John,’ and Jack built himself a studio in Slim’s garage. The garage was on Fernwood Drive, so the label was to be called Fernwood.
The first Fernwood disc does not exist. It was to be Trouble Bound by Arkansas wild man Billy Riley. After working on the songs, Jack Clement needed somewhere to have his tapes mastered for transfer to disc. On the advice of Bill Fitzgerald at Music Sales Distributors, Jack went to Sun Records. Sam Phillips heard Clement’s tape of Riley singing Trouble Bound and offered both Jack and Billy Riley a job. Clement joined Sun on June 15, 1956. His only remaining interest in Fernwood was to use Sun’s facilities to make masters, and to add the echo to the number one hit Tragedy by Thomas Wayne. This had been recorded at Hi Records since the garage studio was still incomplete. “Sam Phillips always wondered how they got that echo,” says Jack with a grin, “but I figured it didn’t take but a few minutes so why should I tell him.”
On the question of whether Sam Phillips really controlled the development of the Sun Sound, whether he was ‘the man’ or just lucky, Jack Clement is in no doubt. “All of Sam’s early success was entirely Sam’s. Elvis, Carl, Cash. My work was with developing Cash’s sound, and with Bill Justis and Charlie Rich. I was into making things musical. Sam was not, but he understood one thing that I didn’t at that time. He understood ‘feel’ in music. I was interested in machines and the way recordings would be made better. Sam liked empty, hollow, tubby sounds, but he knew a thing or two I didn’t. He let me do what I liked, but he retained ultimate control of what was issued. The first time Sam gave me an artist to work with, it was Roy Orbison. I recorded ‘Rockhouse’ with Roy and it was good. But Roy was not into what the Sun studio was capable of back then.”
Jack spent many hours working with several artists that he particularly liked. He began to recall them with obvious pleasure. “Cash. Sam gave me Johnny Cash from ‘Home Of The Blues’ onwards. Sonny Burgess. He was a fine artist but he didn’t really fit into a groove, same with Conway Twitty who never made anything that sounded much like a record. Then Ernie Chaffin and Mack Self, these were excellent country singers.” In Jack Clement’s view, Sun was not making records quite ‘musical’ enough. He was responsible for getting Cash into the pop market and for trying a range of experiments with vocal backings and steel guitar sounds. What he did like at Sun was firstly the depth of talented artists, and secondly the relaxed atmosphere. He could do what he liked; work all night on a session, write songs in Taylor’s Cafe next door, like Cash’s Guess Things Happen That Way, or even build a bathroom in the control room. He once told Sam he could build an office for promotion girl Barbara Barnes for a hundred dollars. So he cancelled sessions and set to with the woodwork. He also spent time helping to master recordings for his buddies on rival labels, and on developing his own musical sound as a performer.
The Jack Clement sound was country, but it was not the Sun sound. It was acoustic, with ringing tones instead of the muddy Cash bass sounds. It was worked out with the help of Clement’s buddy, Jimmy C. Wilson, Jack says, “Wilson was nearly as crazy as me. He was a bit of a nut. He lived in rooms above Taylor’s and he was a great player if he was in the mood. He had a pet coon which he used to bring in and chain to the piano. He used to dismantle and re-build old guns up in his room and he set fire to the place one time. After that he loosed off a rocket, a home-made thing, up there and they threw him out. He went to California and married Nudie the tailor’s daughter.”
In February 1957, Clement and Wilson, plus coon, took off for the RCA Studios in Nashville. They hired bass player Bob Moore and recorded four songs. Ten Years was the major contender, a light, pleasant country ballad with an epic story song feel to it. It’s the Jack Clement style, and it was repeated in October when Jack recreated the sound at Sun on Black Haired Man. This was a fast, rhythmic development of the Cash beat, a gunfighter ballad of real class and a fairly successful record. The flip, Wrong, is light singalong country pop with a prominent acoustic guitar from Jack.
Leaving Sun early in 1959 with his part in a string of million-selling productions behind him, Jack used the proceeds of his song copyrights to buy equipment and to set up Summer Records on Main Street in Memphis. Apart from an atrocious novelty called Motorcycle Michael, Summer bombed. Clement kept busy, though, fooling around with productions for Pepper Records (Tommy Tucker’s Return Of A Teenage Queen) and for Echo Records, which he formed with Stan Kesler and Clyde Leoppard and for which he built a studio on Manassas Avenue. In the fall of ’59 Jack had blown all his money and, in his words, “decided I had to do some work.” He called Chet Atkins in Nashville and was hired as RCA’s most junior producer, producing Del Wood and cultivating stars like Jim Reeves who might record his songs.
After Clement’s first stint in Nashville, he went to Beaumont, Texas, to work with music publisher Bill Hall. While there, he pitched the #1 hit She Thinks I Still Care to George Jones, arranged Ring Of Fire for Johnny Cash, and produced the million-selling pop hit Patches for Dickey Lee, the man who dubbed him ‘Cowboy Jack’. He wrote a number of songs for Johnny Cash at this time including Everybody Loves A Nut and The One On The Right Is On The Left. In 1965, he returned to Nashville, becoming the city’s resident freak … a title he still proudly bears. His biggest coup was signing Charley Pride, but he also signed Townes Van Zandt, the Stonemans, and several other left-of-center country artists. Clement produced his first session with Charley Pride at his own expense and shopped it around town. It wasn’t easy:“The first session, word got around that some idiot was cutting a black country singer. The studio was packed with half the music business in Nashville, waiting to see if I would make a fool of myself.” Eventually Chet Atkins took a chance and put Snakes Crawl At Night on RCA and Pride and Clement on the way to becoming the biggest selling artist on RCA.
With Charley Pride money, he built a studio on Belmont Boulevard next to Shelby Singleton’s reconstituted Sun Records where he ran Jack Music Publishing and set up a record label JMI. In 1970 he recorded one of the biggest selling records of the year there, Ray Stevens’ Everything is Beautiful. A few years on, he signed Don Williams to his JMI label, but felt betrayed when Williams wriggled out of the deal to sign with ABC. Then he bought Pat Boone’s grandmother’s big old house in Nashville and put a studio in the roof. He called it, “a live studio, with no baffles or ear-phones, and no metronomical attitudes, and a control board in the same room as the artists.” He put some of his money into movies and made a big loss on a horror classic, ‘Dear Dead Delilah’ but contributed a wonderful promo slogan – ‘You pay for the whole seat; you only use the edge’.
From the ’70s onward, Clement’s newly named Cowboy Arms Hotel and Recording Spa became Nashville’s ground zero for off-kilter country. He produced the album ‘Dreaming My Dreams’ considered by many to be Waylon Jennings’ finest work. In 1978, Jack made his own first album, ‘All I Want To Do In Life,’ leased to Elektra. You’d think that when a man takes 25 years over an album he’d have a good reason; “it took me a little while to get the rhythm right on the album,” he explained with a straight face. The LP was pure Jack Clement music, a rhythmic sound, drawing on the love songs, the acoustic country, the gunfighter ballads, the outlaw anthems and the old Sun sounds that took his time up those 25 years. It is a pleasantly different-sounding, cleverly tailored album. Most are stand-out tracks, but none more so than Gone Girl, later picked up by Johnny Cash, and the John Prine song, There She Goes. Prine became one of the many quirky protégés and associates Clement liked to hang around with down the years. And the people clamouring to stay at the legendary Recording Spa kept increasing. Then in 1988 the pop band U2 asked Jack to produce their album, ‘Rattle And Hum’. Clement had never heard of them but he did it anyway. Years later, in 2005, a cult documentary DVD, ‘Shakespeare Was A Big George Jones Fan,’ summarised Jack’s life and times and featured many of his famous friends as well as exclusive home movie footage from the Cowboy Arms archives.
In 2004 Jack came up with his own second album, ‘Guess Things Happen That Way,’ on Dualtone. It was a demonstration of the one-of-a-kind world of Cowboy Jack, a project he tinkered with until the last possible second, remixing a vocal here, adding a kazoo there, and juggling the entire sequence to ultimately tell a story the way only he can. The album features ‘Cowboy’s Ragtime Band’, a superb group of cronies, cohorts and ace players. The songs are another combination of Clement classics, new and old, and songs he loves by friends he’s known. Jack says. “I just think about what the song needs and how it ought to be done. Most every successful record I’ve ever produced was successful because it didn’t sound like anything else at the time. I like the record business because nobody remembers your flops. And you’ve only got to do something right once then you’ve captured it forever.”
That sort of permanence can be endangered though. In June 2011, a fire caused by faulty attic wiring destroyed some of the Cowboy Arms, and a lot of Jack’s most prized possessions, but it was rebuilt and Clement still holds court there every day, and will point out the Gibson Jumbo on the wall behind his desk, telling those who care that it’s the guitar he played on Cash’s hit Sun version of Big River. On the occasion of Sam Phillips’ death, in 2003, Jack Clement spoke movingly at the memorial service, barely able to staunch tears as he recalled some of their late night telephone conversations. Now, ten years on, in his 80s and no longer creating the waves he once did, Jack Clement can still look back at a remarkable career and know he’s made his mark. “I’ve got a bunch of people who say I’m a genius,” Jack once said. “That don’t make me a genius. But you’ve got to be pretty smart to get all them people to say that.”