The Spin has always regarded Cowboy Jack Clement as the rock 'n' roll, country and folk exception that proves virtually every rule of those American styles — of course, the first rule is that rules are meant to be creatively bent, if not broken. We wrapped up tight against a cold winter wind and made our way to the War Memorial Auditorium for Honoring a Legend: A Tribute to Cowboy Jack Clement, a multi-artist show that promised to connect folk, pop, rock 'n’ roll and country. Ducking into the venue, The Spin immediately sensed a rockabilly-tinged atmosphere that was convivial and perhaps a little chaotic.
We found this convivial chaos appropriate for a show honoring one of popular music’s most accomplished, idiosyncratic figures. As any adept of Jack Clement’s work knows, chaos is best furthered by using the finest musicians, and we sighted such players as keyboardist and singer Donnie Fritts and legendary guitarist Reggie Young in the audience, along with a brace of well-known figures who were scheduled to perform: Kris Kristofferson, T Bone Burnett, John Prine and Charley Pride. Also on board were many of the cast members of the Nashville TV show, including Connie Britton, who really does look like a country star.
Clement’s story takes in a lot of territory: Cowboy Jack went from his suburban Memphis birthplace to Sun Studios, and to Texas, where he worked with George Jones and blues guitarist Albert Collins, and beyond, to Nashville and his ground-breaking records with Pride. Along the way, he expressed an interest in traveling to Alpha Centauri, as one song on his 1978 full-length All I Want to Do in Life attests. Wednesday night’s show was a Nashville-style tribute that told a lot of that story.
Writer Peter Guralnick, who penned a superb 1979 essay on Clement that all students of Cowboy should read, began the night’s festivities with an overview of his accomplishments. As Guralnick said of Clement, “If you don’t chase fashion, you’ll never go out of style.”
Shawn Camp and Billy Burnette tore into a version of Billy Lee Riley’s rockabilly classic “Red Hot” — Cowboy Jack recorded Riley at Memphis’ Sun Records in the late '50s. Bluegrass master Del McCoury performed “It’ll Be Me,” recasting Clement’s rock ‘n’ roll tune as a skipping two-step. “If you see somebody lookin’ in all the cars / See a rocket ship on its way to Mars / It’ll be me, and I’ll be lookin’ for you,” McCoury sang. The Spin regards “It’ll Be Me” as one of the greatest songs of the 20th century, and McCoury did it justice.
Another Cowboy Jack song that sums up rock ‘n’ roll culture is “Ballad of a Teenage Queen,” which Clement’s old friend Johnny Cash took to the top of the charts in 1958. John Prine performed it solo, and his plain, expressive voice made the tune come alive. Tim O’Brien did a spirited take on “Miller’s Cave,” another Clement classic that connects the dots between country-music moralism and folk-music narrative.
Throughout the night, mandolinist Sam Bush added embellishments to the performances, and Bush sang Cowboy’s “Dirty Old Egg-Suckin’ Dog” with perfect good humor. “This is Cowboy’s most famous love song,” Bush said.
Jakob Dylan tipped his hat to the Memphis-Nashville connection with his hushed take on "Waymore's Blues," Jennings' Waylon-ized version of Furry Lewis’ “Casey Jones," while Marshall Chapman — looking as rangy and sassy as ever — put forth a fine “Let’s All Help the Cowboy (Sing the Blues).” Dickey Lee, who grew up in the same Whitehaven area that spawned Cowboy Jack, sang “She Thinks I Still Care.” And Rodney Crowell and Emmylou Harris harmonized wonderfully on “Dreaming My Dreams With You,” written by Clement’s old friend and collaborator, Allen Reynolds.
There were reminiscences by Reynolds and other Clement associates, along with video tributes from Bill Clinton, Taylor Swift, Marty Stuart, Bono, Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen, Dennis Quaid and John C. Reilly. Connie Britton read a letter of appreciation from First Lady Michelle Obama, and T Bone Burnett — after asking the audience, "Jack Clement isn't in the Country Music Hall of Fame? What the fuck?" — sang Clement’s “Guess Things Happen That Way” with longtime Johnny Cash drummer W.S. Holland standing up to play rockabilly-style snare drum. Mary Gauthier and Matt Urmy — the latter of whom heads up Artist Growth and put this whole shebang together — got the crowd to sing along to "We Must Believe in Magic." Kris Kristofferson said he owed everything good that ever happened to him to Cowboy, and then he played Johnny Cash's "Big River."
Then it was time for Cowboy Jack to come onstage to roars from the packed house. Looking every bit the master psychologist, songwriter and conceptualist, he played sharp rhythm guitar on “Good Hearted Woman” and “Gone Girl.” The night ended with Clement swinging on Ary Barroso’s “Brazil,” a song he’s been playing for decades, followed by a version of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards’ “No Expectations.” The Spin went away with even more appreciation for Clement’s multifarious accomplishments — Cowboy Jack’s art is serious and fun, courtly and racy. Maybe he’ll make it to Alpha Centauri before the place gets eaten up with tourists.