When Cowboy Jack Clement died on Aug. 8, Nashville didn't just lose a brilliant songwriter, legendary producer, record-biz maverick and colorful personality — it lost its self-proclaimed polka king.
Near the end of Shakespeare Was a Big George Jones Fan, the 2005 documentary about Clement's life, he talks about his introduction to polka, Central Europe's greatest contribution to dance music (and the accordion industry, and beer drinking, for that matter). "I walked into this great big room," Clement says, "and here's Frank Yankovic singing 'Just Because,' and it occurred to me: I'm having fun. I'm enjoying this. So I came back to Nashville all fired up to get some polka music going around here. And I am Nashville's polka king."
As Clement tells the tale of his polka initiation, scenes of a rowdy polka party — featuring Yankovic, at the time America's polka king — play across the screen. At one point, Yankovic puts on an enormous cowboy hat as an ecstatic Clement twirls around the stage. Yankovic's performance that night was recorded and released as Live in Nashville, produced by Clement and longtime Yankovic accordionist Joey Miskulin, who now lives in Nashville. (Yes, we have polka royalty living among us — though he's now better known as Joey the CowPolka King, his nom de squeezebox in Riders in the Sky.)
What the film doesn't explain is that the 1986 shindig at the long-defunct Music Row Club was Polka Pandemonium, a welcome party for the man who introduced Clement to polka, and who had just moved to Nashville to head Mercury/Polygram's country division: Steve Popovich.
Like his longtime friend Clement, Popovich too enjoyed a storied record-biz career, both within and outside the mainstream. He had been a vice president at Columbia and Epic Records, and in 1977 founded Cleveland International Records, where he released Meat Loaf's Bat out of Hell and worked with artists like Ian "Cleveland Rocks" Hunter and David Allan Coe.
But Popovich, who died in 2011, never forgot his roots growing up in southwestern Pennsylvania, where his father was a coal miner. Popovich's son, Steve Popovich Jr., remembers hearing tales of his dad's childhood. "Every Friday night after work," Steve Jr. tells the Scene, "the miners and their families would come together, eat, drink and play polka music. Whether you were Slovenian, Croatian, Polish, Italian, German, Czech, they all shared a common love and admiration for polka music. As my dad always put it, it was his people's Prozac.Polka was a huge part of his life up until the very end."
In fact, you could say Popovich owed his career to polka, because it was Yankovic who got him his first job in the music business, in the early 1960s.
"My dad [who lived in Cleveland at the time] had read in the paper where Frank Yankovic was in a car accident and was being treated in a hospital," says Steve Jr., who lives in Nashville and is involved in various aspects of the music business. "Keep in mind the two had never met before. My dad called his room, Frank answered, and my dad said, 'Mr. Yankovic, you don't know me, but I'm from the same area as you in Pennsylvania, and I'm a huge fan of yours from growing up, and I'm in a rock 'n' roll polka band and we play your songs. I was wondering if you could get me a job in the music business.' Long story short, two days later, Frank got my dad a job working in the Columbia Records warehouse in Cleveland handling inventory control."
And in 1976, when Popovich announced he was leaving CBS Records to move back to Cleveland and start his own record label, CBS threw Popovich a surprise party and flew Yankovic to New York.
Of course, it makes perfect sense that when Popovich turned Clement onto polka 30-some years ago, Clement immediately fell in love with it. For one thing, polka is first and foremost dance music, and Clement was famously light on his feet — he'd even done a stint as an Arthur Murray dance instructor. Furthermore, the man was the focal point of what was essentially a decades-long party at his Belmont Avenue home, aka the Cowboy Arms Hotel & Recording Spa — and polka is some of the most festive party music you'll ever find.
And finally, Cowboy Jack Clement loved going against the mainstream. "Cowboy naturally fell in love with what wasn't considered 'hip,' " Steve Jr. says.
This Tuesday, as a tribute to Nashville's two dearly departed polka ambassadors, Polka Pandemonium returns to Nashville, this time at 3rd & Lindsley. For Steve Jr., putting together the show is a labor of love — for polka music, for Cowboy Jack, and most of all, for his father. Providing the music will be Brave Combo, a Denton, Texas, group that has been carrying polka music forward for more than three decades, adding elements of salsa, merengue, zydeco, rock and blues into the mix.
As to whether Brave Combo knows how to throw down, consider this: Not only were they featured (and caricatured) on an episode of The Simpsons (Matt Groening is a longtime fan), but they also played at David Byrne's wedding reception.
And there couldn't be a more fitting band for the occasion. In 1998, when Steve Jr. was a 19-year-old college student in Cleveland, his dad took him to the Roskilde festival in Denmark, where they saw Brave Combo blow the roof off a tent filled with 3,000 or so kids dancing their asses off. Convinced he'd seen the future of rock 'n' roll (or at least the future of polka), Popovich put out Brave Combo's 1999 album Polkasonic through his Cleveland International label — and Polkasonic brought home the 2000 Grammy for Best Polka Album.
Who better to roll out the barrel?