Taken as a whole, the career of Cowboy Jack Clement fits snugly into any auteur theory of country music, and it is his light touch you feel in the scant few solo recordings he released in his lifetime. Six months before Clement died last August, the producer, singer, songwriter and original Nashville hipster recorded his final full-length, For Once and for All, a collection of a dozen Clement tunes that illustrate his ability to write spare, catchy country-folk-pop songs. Produced by longtime Clement associates David Ferguson and Matt Sweeney, For Once and for All gives Cowboy his props as conceptualist songwriter and superbly casual vocalist. Like a great film director in old age, Clement brought a calm, focused mastery to the project that suggests he was, as always, the auteur.
For Once and for All was recorded in March 2013 at Ferguson's studio, The Butcher Shoppe, with some of the vocals cut at Clement's Cowboy Arms Hotel and Recording Spa. Executive producer T Bone Burnett played guitar on several tracks, while Sweeney added atmospheric electric guitar to "Let the Chips Fall." Paying tribute to the great Memphis-born musician, guitarists Dan Auerbach and Duane Eddy joined such esteemed figures as Emmylou Harris, John Prine and Dierks Bentley.
"It was the first time that Jack was ever produced," Sweeney tells the Scene. "Ferg had to come to Jack and say, 'Look, we're gonna make a record on you, and we're gonna finish it, and there ain't nothing you can do about it.' "
For Once and for All gives a nod to the riches of Clement's songbook — Ferguson and Sweeney coax concise performances from the cast, and Clement floats over the changes with offhand charm.
Although Clement had reprised some of his early songs on his 2004 solo record, Guess Things Happen That Way, Ferguson and Sweeney's For Once and For All production recasts Clement's compositions. Sweeney's psychedelic guitar merges with keyboardist Benmont Tench's Wurlitzer on "Let the Chips Fall." Meanwhile, "Just Between You and Me" and "I Know One" receive straight country treatments. If most of the performances on For Once skew to country, John Prine's rhythm guitar on "Miller's Cave" places the song in folk music, where it also belongs.
"When we cut 'Miller's Cave,' Cowboy came to life," Ferguson says. "John Prine did the song different than Cowboy would have ever imagined."
Like the other tracks on For Once, the new version of "Miller's Cave" puts Clement's folk-country-pop song into a modern context without turning it into bland Americana. Elsewhere, Duane Eddy adds single-note lines to "Got Leaving on Her Mind" and "Jesus, Don't Give Up on Me," on which Clement also played. "On that track, none of us could play the right way," says Ferguson. "And he said, 'Oh, just give it to me,' and he played and sang it. That's what's on the record."
For Ferguson and Sweeney, producing Clement was a chance to revisit some of Clement's great songs. They also seem to have been bemused by Clement's working methods, which appear to have been dilatory at times. As Ferguson tells me, Clement spent years attempting to re-record the backing tracks for his production of the 1970 Louis Armstrong full-length, Louis "Country & Western" Armstrong.
"Jack was replacing the band on that thing for years," Ferguson says of the Armstrong record. "Before Pro Tools, what we did, we went in there and took Louis' voice, and recorded it to two-track. Then we went in there and leadered off every phrase, and recorded a new band to a click track. It would take all day."
Indeed, Clement's Armstrong collaboration is a strange, antic record. Like some of Clement's work, it suggests that Cowboy Jack was himself some kind of conceptual collaboration between a couple different artists. His years-in-the-making 1978 full-length debut, All I Want to Do in Life, subverted the conventions of outlaw country in the name of a bruised romanticism.
Only 26 years later, Clement's second solo record, 2004's Guess Things Happen That Way, proved Clement was the kind of auteur who could record a brilliant cover of The Rolling Stones' "No Expectations" and place it alongside a corny song about the benefits of drinking carrot juice. Clement liked to take his time, and along the way he wrote songs — and made records — that he tinkered with for the rest of his life. He conducted himself as if he had all the time in the world, and that is a part of the huge generosity that transpires throughout For Once and for All.
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