THE LAST COWBOY SONG
“My cowdaddy always said he wanted to be ‘blown up’ after he died and he wanted all his friends to be there and say, ‘There He Goes’” Alison Clement remarked as she and brother Niles Clement spread some of Cowboy Jack Clement’s ashes in the creek behind his Belmont Boulevard home/office. The 150 invited guests held their breaths, then there was an explosively loud bang! David Ferguson (“Ferg”) ignited a rocket with a Cowboy ash payload and it soared above the tree line to a chorus of ‘There he goes’. An even louder BANG! ensued as Cowboy’s ashes were blasted up and out, to blow with the wind. Show biz to the end for the legendary Hall of Famer!
A virtual jack of all trades in the entertainment business, Cowboy Jack Clement, 82, died August 8th at his Nashville home following a lengthy illness. Ironically he was officially inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame Oct 27th along with Bobby Bare and Kenny Rogers – begging the question ‘What exactly were they waiting for him to do?’ The man had done it all and done it sublimely and humbly. At various times in his colourful life, he was a record and movie producer, songwriter, performing and recording artist, studio engineer, dance instructor and always a first-rate raconteur.
Jack Clement always had a keen knack for hooking up with great talent, and bringing out their best. Born in Memphis on April 5, 1931, he studied at Memphis State from 1953 to 1955, during which he played pedal steel, earning the sobriquet “Cowboy.” He made a giant leap by hooking up with Sam Phillips at Memphis’ Sun Records. Adept not only at the technical aspects of the job, he also had great musical instincts, as proven most overtly when Sam was out of town and a young rocking pianist named Jerry Lee Lewis showed up and Jack wisely recorded him. It was a legendary discovery, and showed that this cowboy knew what he was doing. He recorded ‘A Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On,’ which propelled the pianist to superstardom, and secured Jack a seat at the console.
In 1956 he engineered one of Sun Studios’ impromptu intersections of greatness when Elvis Presley teamed up with Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins to create what’s become known as “The Million Dollar Quartet,” for which a Broadway musical was created.
Jack went on to write, record and produce great music with one legend after the next, including Charlie Rich, Roy Orbison, John Hartford, Doc Watson, Townes Van Zandt, Don Williams, Waylon Jennings, and even Satchmo himself, Louis Armstrong. And it was Cowboy who broke the longtime country music colour barrier when he discovered and produced Charlie Pride, to make 20 albums together and forever changing the face of country music.
Along with producing Waylon’s Dreaming My Dreams – a high point of Nashville’s Outlaw Movement – he mentored Allen Reynolds(he also sold another studio, Jack’s Tracks to Reynolds) who used the place to record Crystal Gayle, Kathy Mattea, Garth Brooks and others.
He finally got around to releasing a solo album for Elektra Records, All I Want to Do In Life. That one didn’t make commercial waves (other than in Australia), but it showcased Clement’s masterful phrasing and round, full voice.
A quick look at the list of legends who have cut his songs includes Johnny Cash, John Prine, U2, Kris Kristofferson, Hank Snow, Cliff Richard, Ray Charles, Gram Parsons, George Jones, Dolly Parton, Garth Brooks, Charley Pride, Jim Reeves. And that’s not to mention Elvis, who worked with Jack from the very start. Songs by Jack include ‘Ballad of A Teenage Queen’, ‘Miller’s Cave,’ ‘I Know One,’ ‘Just Someone I Used To Know,’ ‘Guess Things Happen That Way’ and ‘It’ll Be Me’ and although it was never a big hit, for me the Cowboy’s signature tune will always be ‘When I Dream.’ He was a true writers’ writer in that he produced tunes others sought to emulate.
In the 1980s, Mr. Clement produced Cash, Hartford and some tracks for U2. Mostly, he watched as mentees Reynolds, Rooney and Fundis produced records, and he engaged in creative dawdling.
“People would come in here and record” in the ’80s and ’90s, he told No Depression magazine. “I kept the studio working and furnished some engineers. I sort of holed up in this house and let the rest of the world either go by or drop by.”
But in the new century, Mr. Clement drew inspiration from young bucks Billy Burnette and Shawn Camp, and he seemed pleased to find Nashville recognizing him as its weirdest and perhaps wisest elder. He performed shows during a sold-out residency at the Country Music Hall of Fame, took bows as an Americana Music Association award winner, worked on a movie score with T Bone Burnett and released his first album in more than a quarter-century, the critically lauded Guess Things Happen That Way.
Mr. Clement received more notoriety in 2005, with the release of the “Shakespeare Was a Big George Jones Fan” documentary, which featured Cash, Kristofferson, Pride, Jones and many others joking around and also talking about Mr. Clement’s pleasingly off-kilter worldview.
Mr. Clement’s home studio on Belmont Boulevard drew towering musical figures such as Cash, Prine, Wagoner, Parton, Hartford and songwriting hero Townes Van Zandt, and that studio — called The Cowboy Arms & Recording Spa — was a meeting ground for generations of Nashville musicians who shared Mr. Clement’s irreverent appreciation of laughter and song. Among musos, dreamers, poets and clowns, keys to Mr. Clement’s house were as common as guitar picks, and as valued as gold records.
“You know, I’m also Nashville’s Polka King,” Mr. Clement reminded a Tennessean interviewer in 2007. Asked how he came by that moniker, Mr. Clement said, “Well, I love polka, and one day I guess I started calling myself that. And nobody ever challenged me on it, so I guess it must be true.”
At the end of Mr. Clement’s radio show, he’d often play a song from Guess Things Happen That Way, one that ended, “Goodbye, cruel circus/ I’m off to join the world.”
But Mr. Clement never quite joined the world. He danced through it, drank through it, sang through it, made it prettier and more interesting, and gave it further dimension. He caused its inhabitants to laugh and whistle and wonder and arch eyebrows.
By Denise Torenbeek