Cowboy Jack Clement, who died last August at age 82, spoke in parables, bon mots, malapropisms and elliptical one-liners. He referred obsessively to Shakespeare, built ukuleles and was a polka-dancing fool. From the ’70s until his death, he nurtured virtually every non-mainstream singer, picker and songwriter who came to Nashville, and a lot of the mainstream ones too. In a company town like Nashville, the colorful songwriter-producer-engineer-artist definitely stood out.
But you didn’t want to cross him. “He was a stickler for spelling, punctuation and math. Jack was not a clown, though he was funny. He was a very serious man, and he demanded respect,” says David Ferguson, co-producer of the recently released For Once and for All, on which Clement sings a dozen of the classic country songs he wrote. Ferguson went to work for Clement as a go-fer in 1980, when he was 18. He soon was trained as an engineer, and stayed with the boss until the end. “If you were on a Jack Clement session, you showed up on time or you didn’t play. You were very careful around his machines, and you had to have a good work ethic. His way of having fun was creating things, and it was a great way of teaching the trade.”
If those two portraits seem to directly contradict each other, things come into better perspective in the context of Clement’s long and storied career. His first real foothold in the music biz came in 1956, when he became producer and engineer at Sun Records in Memphis; he was the first to record Jerry Lee Lewis and Roy Orbison, wrote pop hits (“Ballad of a Teenage Queen,” “Guess Things Happen That Way”) for Johnny Cash, and rolled the tapes on the Million Dollar Quartet jam. Soon after being fired by Sam Phillips in 1959 for “insubordination” following a boozy minor argument, he went to Nashville to work for Chet Atkins at RCA, then to Beaumont, Texas, to co-run his own studios and publishing houses.
Returning to Nashville in ’65, he became one of the first independent producers in town. He convinced Atkins to sign Charley Pride, modern country’s first black artist, at a time when Nashville was still segregated, and he produced Pride’s first 13 albums. In 1970, he established the first 16-track studio in town, and at his peak he had his own label (JMI, which introduced Don Williams), three studios, two publishing houses and a graphic arts studio — then lost it all when he sank everything into producing the massive failure Dear Dead Delilah, a 1972 Southern Gothic exploitation flick starring Agnes Morehead. Clement shrugged and said he’d always wanted to try the movie business, then refocused on music. Three years later, he produced Waylon Jennings’s Dreaming My Dreams, widely regarded as the crowning achievement of the Outlaw movement, and in 1978, at the age of 47, he released his own debut album. All I Want to Do in Life is a stunning and singular country-pop-folk blend that wraps love, loss and space travel inside low-key whimsy and haunting spirituality. It made barely a ripple in the marketplace.
Clement spent most of the next two decades holding court at his Cowboy Arms Hotel and Recording Spa, the house on Belmont Boulevard where he lived on the ground floor and ran a studio upstairs. His credits varied widely. Between 1968 and 1973 he’d produced most of the work of Townes Van Zandt, and Van Zandt’s followers flocked to Cowboy Arms. Iris DeMent, John Prine, John Hartford, Nanci Griffith and Alison Krauss all recorded there during this time, and one could easily argue that a template for what came to be called Americana music was set at 3405 Belmont Boulevard. On some sessions, Clement was credited as producer, or engineer, or acoustic guitarist, but much of the time it was hard to explain exactly what he did. (“It’s not about science; it’s about alchemy,” he once told Bono, one of his most ardent devotees.) Mostly, he mentored fledgling engineers and producers on-the-job, tinkered with his old productions a fair amount, and dispensed wisdom to all who dropped in — a group that ranged from Johnny Cash, who Clement produced frequently in the ’80s, to U2, whose Rattle and Hum included two tracks produced by Clement at the Sun Studio in Memphis. At a tribute concert in Nashville about eight months before Clement’s death, Bono, via video, described the producer’s working methods thusly: “He said, ‘It’s not about math, boy, it’s about magic. Do you believe in magic’?”
His picking parties, or open jams, held out in the yard when weather permitted, were famous for the differing characters they drew, and the man clearly loved to hold court when he wasn’t picking or working. “We’re in the fun business,” goes one of his most famous aphorisms. “If we’re not having fun we’re not doing our job.” Needless to say, this has never been the guiding principle in most of Nashville. One day, a repairman showed up at Cowboy Arms to discuss fixing the air-conditioning. Mid-sentence, Clement reached below his desk, grabbed a trombone and a top hat which he put on his head, and proceeded to march up and down the hallway blowing for a while. Then he returned to his desk and calmly continued the conversation. Such stories about Cowboy Jack were legion. The word “genius” invariably works into any conversation about him.
“I’ve got a bunch of people who say I’m a genius,” he liked to say. “That don’t make me a genius. But you’ve got to be pretty smart to get all them people to say that on cue.”
In the new millennium, Clement suddenly got interested in making his own music again. After a quarter-century off, he cut a “follow-up” album, 2004′s Guess Things Happen That Way, a slapdash affair that nonetheless had its charms. He started playing live a lot more often. Until liver cancer began taking hold of him, the picking parties continued to grow larger and more freewheeling. He had a Sirius XM Outlaw Country radio show. For Once and For All, on which he’s surrounded by many of those friends who used to hang out at Cowboy Arms, is produced by Ferguson and guitarist Matt Sweeney with T Bone Burnett as executive producer. Weak while recording his parts in March 2013, Clement took to his bed for good shortly after finishing.
But you’d never guess that from listening. Clement seems energized, singing with passion and precision, his voice tinged with melancholy but his phrasing and sense of rhythm and melody both sure. He sounds devastated on “Baby Is Gone,” merely morose on “Just a Girl I Used to Know” genuinely regretful on “I’ve Got a Thing About Trains.” He’s full of piss and vinegar on “Miller’s Cave,” the Voice of Doom on “Let the Chips Fall,” a murder ballad and would-be murder ballad, respectively, on which his own sense of mortality can’t be too far from his mind. “Jesus Don’t Give Up on Me” is a prayer, plain and simple.
Ferguson and Sweeney have created for him a spare but textured sound that could be called chamber country, close in feel to All I Want to Do in Life; and it’s a measure of Cowboy’s powerful personality that no matter how distinctive his sidemen and background singers sound most of the time, they almost lose themselves here in order to keep the focus on him. That’s Duane Eddy playing guitar on “Got Leaving on Her Mind” and “Jesus Don’t Give Up on Me”? Coulda fooled me. Leon Russell’s piano and Benmont Tench’s organ on “Fools Like Me”? If you say so. Emmylou Harris and Jim Lauderdale providing the harmonies on “Just a Girl I Used to Know”? Stunningly rich, but barely recognizable. Above it all floats the spirit of Cowboy Jack Clement, which is exactly as things should be. He could have been writing his own epitaph when, in an interview with American Songwriter that was among his last, he declared, “I’ve been a music bum all of my adult life. Making music has always been my hobby, and it still is.”