Honoring Cowboy Jack Clement, the one degree of separation between Sun Records and U2 

You Don’t Know Jack

You Don’t Know Jack

He billows into sight wearing, of all things, a bathrobe designed for Elvis Presley fans. There's the likeness of Elvis in Speedway, near the breast pocket. There's Ann-Margret from Viva Las Vegas, laughing in a fold of the robe. Without fuss or affect, which of course makes it all the more eye-catching, he gathers it around him: the cloak of the wizard he is.

Cowboy Jack Clement has crammed several lifetimes into his 81 years. He's been a ballroom dance instructor, a horror-movie producer, a ukulele manufacturer. He's been a Marine, a home-movie aficionado, a champion artistic troublemaker. Somewhere in the midst of all that revelry, he found time for one of the great careers in American music.

Along with his onetime employer, Sam Phillips, Clement helped create an unbridled kind of music at Sun Records in the late '50s. He then flourished in Nashville, where he brought to bear the technological and conceptual lessons he'd learned in Memphis. He prevailed in his mission to make country music sound natural by using unnatural methods.

"The singers are something to make the machines sound good," he told interviewer John A. Lomax III in 1977. "If the singer sounds good, it must be right."

Yet as producer, songwriter, entrepreneur, aphorist, video pioneer, holy fool, musician and singer, Clement didn't just help to invent rock 'n' roll in Memphis or produce timeless country music in Nashville. He did something far more difficult and profoundly influential. He imposed eternal values on the Nashville music business at a time when the industry needed them most. He changed the way Music Row viewed the regional music that had shaped it, according to Laura Cantrell, a student of country music history and a performer in her own right.

"He had the skills to refine it and make real records out of it, and not just have them be these one-offs," says Cantrell, a Nashville-born singer and songwriter who now resides in New York City.

For all his forward-thinking manner, though, in recent years Clement has faced what might be gently described as a vigorous old age. One mighty blow was a fire that took out part of his house in June 2011. He lost some precious master tapes and memorabilia, but Clement rebuilt his studio before moving back into the house last spring.

More threatening is a health issue that he has chosen to deal with in his own manner. Late last year, Clement was diagnosed with a rare form of liver cancer. He has elected so far to abstain from treatment. "In facing his most recent challenge," his current press release states, "he is choosing music over medicine."

It is the kind of setback that would sink a less buoyant man. But Clement has confronted it as he does most things: with an air of amused mischief. It's the source of much of his mystique. You may recall the title of the Johnny Cash single that stands as one of his lasting contributions to Western Culture, 20th Century North American Country-Rock Division: "Guess Things Happen That Way."

This Wednesday, Jan. 30, at a War Memorial Auditorium tribute show called Honoring a Legend: A Tribute to Cowboy Jack Clement, Clement is being honored by some of the musicians he has influenced and encouraged during his long career. Their ranks include Emmylou Harris, T Bone Burnett, Kris Kristofferson, Charley Pride, John Prine and Mary Gauthier, along with Clement's daughter, Alison Clement. Also set to appear are Black Keys frontman Dan Auerbach, actor John C. Reilly, Rodney Crowell, Del McCoury, Jakob Dylan, Marshall Chapman, neo-country torch singer Nikki Lane, and Clement's longtime friends and co-conspirators Allen Reynolds and Dickey Lee.

Such commemoration seems unusually urgent. Clement's achievements grow exponentially as you examine them, and his songwriting alone would mark him as a major artist. And yet his humor tends to puncture any sense of inflated importance. In the 1950s, before the Memphis-born songwriter, singer and producer Dickey Lee went on to write George Jones' epochal 1962 single "She Thinks I Still Care" and other smashes, he was working with Cowboy in the Bluff City.

"I remember askin' him one time, I said, 'You think I could ever write a hit song?' " Lee recalls. "And he said, 'Yeah, you don't have to be that smart to write a hit song.' "

On this early winter afternoon, in his Elvis robe, Cowboy Jack Clement appears eternally young. He's a first-rate raconteur and master of the one-liner so perfectly wrought that its maker can afford to seem to throw it away. A visitor to his Cowboy Arms Hotel & Recording Spa near Belmont looks up at a framed 1951 photo of the young Clement, crisp and trim in his Marine dress blues. He stands at attention as the future Queen Elizabeth descends the steps of the U.S. Capitol — the kind of historic occasion that Clement has often turned to his unlikely advantage.

"That's Queen Elizabeth," Clement deadpans. "She was just a princess then."

Like any sensible person fortunate enough to be welcomed into The Cowboy Arms, I have prepared a few items: inquiries as to how he helped to create rock 'n' roll in the '50s; requests for songwriting tips he's surely elucidated a thousand times over; entreaties for stories about some of the musicians he's directed in the recording studio — Charlie Rich, Ernest Stoneman, Waylon Jennings, Stoney Edwards. But the hallmark of meeting Cowboy Jack Clement is not knowing exactly what will result.

"I didn't even meet him until he was 79 years old," says Matt Urmy, a Nashville singer-songwriter who is organizing the tribute show with longtime Clement associates Dub Cornett and David "Ferg" Ferguson. "I went over to his house and knocked on his door, and we spent a few hours drinking wine and smokin' cigarettes."

Not long after, Clement agreed to appear as the main attraction in Urmy's Renaissance Rodeo Show, a musical bash Urmy put on at 3rd & Lindsley a couple of years ago. They began working together in the studio. Urmy considers him his mentor as much as his producer.

Urmy's story is familiar to Nashville music followers. Clement's Cowboy Arms Hotel & Spa doubles as his home on Belmont Boulevard, and the list of artists and thrill-seekers who have passed through its doors reads like a directory of the music business. In the 1990s, reporters interviewing Clement in his home office might be startled to see his close friend Johnny Cash walk in and idly pick up a guitar off the wall.

It could be that the fire of June 25, 2011, focused more attention on Cowboy Jack and his massive contributions to American music, but he has been neither unoccupied nor unheralded in recent years. He released his second solo record, Guess Things Happen That Way, in 2004 — the last time he'd put his name on a collection was 1978's All I Want to Do in Life. He's performed with Old Crow Medicine Show in Nashville and made other local appearances, including a 2008 set at the Ernest Tubb Midnite Jamboree, where he sang, played guitar and ukulele, and danced with the show's host, Jennifer Herron. He wowed audiences with shows at Joe's Pub in New York. And he's hosted his own Sirius XM radio program, The Cowboy Jack Clement Show.

At all of these appearances, he came across as the kind of figure who inspires devotion: one who combines innocence and wisdom in one unlikely package. Laura Cantrell remembers Clement trying to navigate New York in 2005, when he was in town for Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville's documentary Shakespeare Was a Big George Jones Fan, or, Cowboy Jack's Home Movies.

"I went to a screening-related event and met him," Cantrell says. "It became clear that Cowboy didn't have a lot of experience hanging out in New York — he's a man of the world, but even the best of them can get a little overwhelmed. So he took me aside, and he was like, 'Do you know where I can get a sandwich?' So I went to a deli with him and got him a roast beef sandwich. We hit it off — he's a real unpretentious, interesting, interested-in-the-world, unique guy."

He made just as disarming an impression on Nashville singer and songwriter Mary Gauthier, who calls him "the cruise director, the CEO of the merry band of wildly talented people who just don't fit in anywhere." The first time she met Clement, he invited her back to the house, where he played her and other guests the completed Shakespeare movie.

"He laughed at the funny parts, and I couldn't believe I was sittin' with him in his office laughing at the funny parts," Gauthier says. "It was just, in a really cool way, 'Welcome to Nashville, kid.' "

Yet Clement's hospitality dovetails with his receptors as a talent scout. Dan Wheetman met Clement after coming to Nashville in 2003 as a writer and performer in a musical revue called It Ain't Nothin' but the Blues at The Belcourt. A couple of years later, Cowboy came to check out Wheetman's band Marley's Ghost at Nashville's Douglas Corner.

"That's when the whole band met him," says Wheetman, the band's frontman and lead guitarist. "It was about six months later that Jack wrote us a letter — he wrote a letter — and said, 'I would really like to work with you guys, if you would like to work with me.' We thought about it for about a minute and a half."

Wheetman remembers how effortlessly Clement took to the band's desire to record live in the studio, and how assiduously he strove to capture those performances as they came down. When the group was recording last year's full-length, Jubilee, Clement brought in Old Crow Medicine Show to do a version of Bobby and Shirley Womack's "It's All Over Now." Says Wheetman, "With Old Crow, that's a live cut, all of us sitting around in a circle, with Larry Campbell's guitar break. Jack sang live with us — he may have replaced part of his verse."

Clement has recorded two full-length LPs with Marley's Ghost, for whom he has praise: "They're mature people, and they have worked together for a long time. And they've got their own money. They just love to play, and they're professionals." It's tempting to call these two productions his statements on Americana, the movement showing some momentum as a catch-all genre for roots music.

Except that Cowboy Jack was doing what's dubbed Americana long before the word referred to a musical style. Take bringing Charley Pride into the country-music fold, for example. What could seem more genre-expanding — more American — than a black man singing Clement's ingenious blend of country, folk and pop? Clement's furthering of Pride's career is a shining example of his genius for sociability. Indeed, the pioneering Pride — who still performs the songs Clement helped him make famous, and does 45 or 50 dates a year in Canada, the United States and Europe — remembers Cowboy Jack as both a genius and a teacher.

"I was green as a gourd," says Pride, who made history as the first African-American country superstar. "I was just doin' what I was told — 'Sing it this way.' We had some fallin'-outs, but not at first, because I was too green to say anything but, 'Yes, sir.' "

There may have been a time when Jack Clement too was green as a gourd. But in everything he has tried, he applied himself to a steep learning curve early on. Staying loose even as he learned each new lesson, he made the fruitful decision to stay creatively bent.

Jack Henderson Clement was born in the Memphis suburb of Whitehaven on April 5, 1931. From an early age, he exhibited two things that would shape his career: a gift for music, and wanderlust.

"I wanted to be a hobo," Clement says. "I ran away from home one time. We were doin' a show at the [Levi] grammar school — I was out of there by now and I was goin' to Whitehaven High School. I was gonna sing some songs there, but I hadn't worked it up right with the band or anything. I told my father I didn't wanna do it, and he said, 'You'll do it if I have to stand up there and make you do it.' I said, 'OK, Pop.'

"We got to the school, and he got out and went in, and I walked six or seven miles to the next highway and started hitchhiking, went up into Kentucky. I took my guitar, didn't have a case or anything, and came back after four or five days, and my daddy was better to me then, after that."

Clement was about 15 when he ran away from home. He signed up for the Marine Corps in 1948, hoping to see the world. He spent most of his time in the Marines stationed in Washington, D.C. — the photo of Clement and the future queen documents his time as a member of the Marine Drill Corps — where he began playing bluegrass music with a group that included members of the Stoneman family. Their patriarch, Ernest "Pop" Stoneman, had been a recording star 25 years earlier.

"There were clubs, joints, right across the street from where I was stationed, so I started playin' those gigs, and makin' a little money," Clement remembers of his D.C. days. "There were a lot of people from Virginia and West Virginia, hillbilly kind of stuff. There was a lot of music from over there that ventured into D.C. I'd heard about the Stonemans, and then somebody told me about them. We just dropped in to see 'em one time — we were gonna play a gig out in Maryland, and we stopped in to see 'em on the way out."

Clement would later produce a series of oddball recordings for the Stonemans in the '60s, and would even cut some hits on them — you have to hear 1967's Clement-penned, space-traveling "The Five Little Johnson Girls" to believe it. But in the early 1950s, he had yet to become the Cowboy. Back then, he was galvanized watching the young Scott Stoneman tear it up on stage.

"They were bluegrassy, but they were beyond that," Clement says of the Stonemans during this period. "They were showmen — they liked to do things to get people's attention, not just show how great they were. They liked to be funny. Scott Stoneman was a great entertainer, very much like Elvis. When I saw Elvis, I said, 'I've seen this before.' "

After his 1952 discharge from the Marines, Clement made his way back to Memphis, where he went to college, contemplated a career in construction, and became an Arthur Murray dance instructor. Through a friend named Slim Wallace, Clement met the future rockabilly star Billy Lee Riley, whose music would play a part in determining Clement's next step in the music business.

"I was playin' with Wallace, and he had a nightclub over in Paragould, Ark., " Clement remembers. "One time, it was Christmas Eve, and we were playing. Well, this time they had a couple of girls they brought along, and they drank a whole lot, and I was playing the steel guitar and singing, not drinkin' anything to speak of.

"Afterwards, we were were driving back to Memphis, and stopped in a little all-night restaurant. This girl was drunk, and we was settin' in the car, and they went inside. Well, she got out and started walkin' around, and the cops came along. They locked her up, and they locked me up."

Once out of jail, Clement joined Wallace, and they began making their way back to Memphis. "Nothing was running, because this was Christmas Day," Clement says. "So we were out on the highway, hitchhiking, and Billy Lee Riley comes along, and Slim knew him. So Billy Lee stopped and picked us up. We were talking on the way back, and Slim was saying how good this guy was."

Clement didn't know it at the time, but the jail stay and the encounter that followed put him on the path to meeting the man who would change his life. He and Wallace eventually booked time at Memphis radio station WMPS, where they cut a 1956 single on Riley. They planned to put it out themselves on a label called Fernwood Records, and as Clement recalls, there was one main guy in town who would master such a project: Sam Phillips.

"So I took the tape down to him and left it for several days. I went in to pick it up, and he was sittin' in the front office," Clement says. "He said, 'Come on back — I want to talk to you.' I went back, and he said, 'I really like that record,' and wanted to know if I'd like to put it out on Sun Records. And he asked me if I'd like to come to work there. I said, 'Well, yeah,' and went to work there a couple of weeks later."

Clement began working at Sun in 1956, after Presley had left the label. In the studio, Clement recorded Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bill Justis, Charlie Rich and Johnny Cash. As a songwriter, he penned "Guess Things Happen That Way" and "Ballad of a Teenage Queen" for Cash, along with the indelible early rock 'n' roll song "It'll Be Me," which Lewis was attempting to record on the same day that Clement caught Lewis putting down "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" in one inspired take.

During his tenure at Phillips' Sun, Clement had met Allen Reynolds, a songwriter and singer who had moved from North Little Rock, Ark., to Memphis. Now a Nashville songwriter and producer, Reynolds went on to write The Vogues' "Five O'Clock World" and Waylon Jennings' "Dreaming My Dreams With You" and to produce Garth Brooks' record-setting oeuvre, not to mention innumerable other projects with Clement and Dickey Lee. But he retains a vivid image of the young record producer he encountered in Memphis.

"First time I saw him, he came ridin' up to the studio on a motorcycle, with a leather jacket, leather hat and a leather pigtail hangin' down the back, and his tattoos, and I thought, 'Wow,' " Reynolds recalls, laughing. "We got to be buddies, and, you know, would go to his house and grill hamburgers and hot dogs on the patio."

In 1959, as the story goes, Phillips fired Clement from Sun for "insubordination" — Cowboy Jack says it was a misunderstanding that had everything to do with Clement's desire to get home during a Memphis snowstorm. During a spell in Memphis, Clement, Lee and Reynolds got together in Clement's short-lived Echo Studio on Manassas Street to make a jokey recording for a friend. Goofing through the session, they took turns addressing each other as "cowboy." It is here that Clement acquired his nickname, the roundabout road to Nashville started, and The Ballad of Cowboy Jack Clement began a dramatic new verse.

The newly minted Cowboy Jack started the '60s commuting from Memphis to Nashville as a producer for Chet Atkins at RCA. By 1961, he had moved to Beaumont, Texas, presumably to get Nashville out of his hair for a while. By 1962, he'd inveigled his pals Lee and Reynolds to join him there.

In Beaumont, Cowboy ran a recording studio with partner Bill Hall, started the publishing company Hall-Clement Music, and began to nurture the songwriting career of Nashville tunesmiths Jerry Foster and Bill Rice. But while he'd been in Nashville, he'd heard a tune that came to RCA from writers Barry Mann and Larry Kolber.

The song was called "Patches," a five-hankie weeper of teenage lovers doomed by class prejudice and unfeeling parents. The story was a natural for the post-Elvis, pre-Beatles era of rock 'n' roll. Clement thought it might make a good fit for an old friend.

"Jack found the song, 'Patches,' and played it for me," Dickey Lee remembers. "He was screenin' songs for Chet, and he heard it and thought it would be a good song."

Clement cut "Patches" with Lee in Beaumont. The single sold a million copies in 1962. Not only did Beaumont give Lee his career hit and Clement a major calling card as producer, it gave them proximity to a rising star in nearby Vidor, Texas: an up-and-comer named George Jones, to whom Clement, Lee and Reynolds began pitching songs. Published by Hall-Clement Music, "She Thinks I Still Care" was a huge hit for Jones, and the great singer cut Cowboy's "A Girl I Used to Know" and "Not What I Had in Mind" the same year.

At this point, Clement had worked with quintessential rock 'n' roller Jerry Lee Lewis and quintessential rock-era vocalist Elvis Presley — Cowboy had been at the board at Phillips' studio at 706 Union Ave. the day Presley joined other Sun Records stars in the famed "Million Dollar Quartet" — and George Jones, who was already the greatest singer in country-music history. In early 1965, Cowboy made his way back to Nashville. He'd been writing in Beaumont, and had a few ideas of his own.

As producer, songwriter and conceptualist, Clement came to Music City to change the landscape. If you listen to the Charley Pride records that cemented his reputation, you'll hear Pride's astringent baritone sensitively supported by instrumentation that respects that astringency. Having found country's first African-American superstar, Clement put up the money to produce master recordings of "The Snakes Crawl at Night" and "The Atlantic Coastal Line." Neither made the charts, but they opened the door for Pride's eventual success.

Clement's work with Pride shows off Cowboy's immense songwriting chops. Listen how deftly Clement positions the hook on the 1967 Pride single "I Know One," using an extended vowel and a strategic extra beat. It's masterful, and unlike anything else being done at the time.

He did a different kind of trailblazing with the underrated 1960s country-folk act Tompall & the Glaser Brothers. On their 1967 self-titled full-length, Clement made a folk-country-pop statement out of their cover of Tom Paxton's folkie standard, "The Last Thing on My Mind." On the same album, the Glasers ably interpreted "Bob," a Clement-penned tale of a bohemian who visits a friend who has become a bourgeois. "So you've got yourself a housewife, Bob," the Glasers sing. "And a house note, too."

Clement's work with the Glaser Brothers contrasts with his more acclaimed recordings with Pride. Charley Pride recalls Clement as a master of his craft, while Jim Glaser remembers Clement as a consummate professional with a distinctive vision.

"Clement was trying to do a thing with crossover potential," Glaser says. "He had an idea of what he wanted, and he recorded until he got it. I remember doin' 'Wicked California,' that he had written, and he had a line: 'Hold me to your bosom, California.' And Tompall wasn't sayin' it right — he'd say, 'Boo-zoom.' I liked working with producers like that."

Having achieved success on something like Nashville's terms, Clement began to experiment in the '70s. He cultivated his legend, finished his solo album, and opened a graphics-art studio and a state-of-the art recording studio or two. He lost a spectacular amount of money on his misbegotten 1972 horror-movie project, Dear Dead Delilah. He should've called up Orson Welles and asked for the lowdown, auteur to auteur, before he let Agnes Moorehead be cast in his film, that's for sure.

I'm out of time, out of space. I talk to Jack Clement about many things — for instance, his late-'70s work with the underappreciated African-American country singer Stoney Edwards, who was Charley Pride's equal as an artist, if not a commercial force.

"I got a bunch of stuff in that building out there that never got released," Clement says, pointing to his backyard on an unseasonably warm afternoon. "Good stuff. Stoney, he wasn't as sexual as Charley Pride. He was a good-lookin' guy, but he didn't have that certain thing like Charley Pride had."

As for Charley Pride, Cowboy is a bit more circumspect in his assessment. "He was hard to work with," Clement says. "He didn't know what he wanted to do. He got to the point where he'd get things in the mail and wanted to record it. Hell, I was lookin' for songs all the time."

We've scarcely gotten to talk about perhaps his most famous collaboration: that with his longtime friend, cohort and home-movie leading man Johnny Cash, for whom he famously added the crowning touch of mariachi horns to the career-reviving blockbuster "Ring of Fire." I ask him about "Ballad of a Teenage Queen" — hey, Cowboy, who inspired that song?

"It was about Barbara Pittman," Cowboy says, with a certain gleam in his eye. "She was a singer who was at Sun, and I was the boy workin' at the candy store. Which was Sun Records."

The prospect of a future without the Cowboy's presence in it is unquestionably bleak. If anything makes that tolerable, it's the joy, humor and personality that reside in his music: the rock 'n' roll of Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison and Bill Justis; the country of Cash, Pride, Waylon Jennings, Tompall & the Glaser Brothers and The Stoneman Family; in his celebrated 1987 production of U2 at Sun Studio; and his recent work with the unclassifiable Marley's Ghost. Clement's art has always balanced conservative and futuristic impulses, from his early video experiments to his genre-collapsing solo work. His insights can be applied to any future version of pop music you can imagine.

And that Elvis robe? It turns out that Cowboy bought it from the gift shop of Memphis' Peabody Hotel. That makes sense in the topsy-turvydom that is Clement World, where significance almost always comes after the fact. After all, Cowboy Jack witnessed Elvis when the future rock icon was merely a 1954 floor show at a Memphis nightclub, The Eagle's Nest. According to Cowboy, Elvis tried to flirt with his fiancée. "He couldn't do it — I got her," he says.

No wonder. Following Elvis was hard enough. Following Cowboy Jack Clement is just about impossible.

Email editor@nashvillescene.com.


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