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

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.

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