Cowboy Jack Clement / Bill Lloyd / Billy Burnette / Shawn Camp – Bluebird Cafe (Nashville, TN)
The genius of Cowboy Jack Clement has been revealed mostly through others’ voices. Clement was the first to record Jerry Lee Lewis and Roy Orbison at Sun Records, and he produced historically significant sessions for Johnny Cash, Sonny Burgess, Charlie Rich, Waylon Jennings, Charley Pride, Townes Van Zandt and others. His songs have been cut by artists whose names — Cash, Pride, Jennings, Lewis, Orbison, Emmylou Harris, George Jones, John Prine, Gram Parsons, Ray Price, Don Williams, etc. — figure prominently in the birth of rock ‘n’ roll, in the countrypolitan period, in the Outlaw movement, and beyond. The Cowboy also discovered Pride and Don Williams, purchased and operated a famed Nashville studio, and inspired proteges including Emmy/Garth/Trisha producer Allen Reynolds and Cash/Marty Stuart engineer David Ferguson.
Clement is a behind-the-scenester, though, which made his appearance at the Bluebird something to behold. There he was, wearing a Hawaiian shirt and sporting a guitar that had once been scratched all to hell by Elvis Presley’s belt buckle (he had it re-finished, saying, “I’d rather have it looking pretty than show everybody Elvis’ scratches.”). Bill Lloyd, formerly of Foster & Lloyd and now a pop-rocker — was seated in-the-round to Clement’s right, with accomplished rockabilly man Billy Burnette and country singer-songwriter Shawn Camp completing the foursome. Ferguson stood just outside the circle, playing stand-up bass on Clement’s songs and occasionally contributing full-voiced high harmonies.
“This isn’t one of those deals where we have to do all our own songs, is it?” Clement asked from the stage, subsequently wrapping his inexact yet fundamentally soulful baritone around “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain”. Lloyd contributed lovely, low-string guitar fills and Camp played a plaintive fiddle, integrating dusky Appalachian sadness and note choices characteristic of western swing in a manner reminiscent of the great Austin fiddler Champ Hood. Clement chose two other cover tunes during the course of the evening: a rollicking take on the Rolling Stones’ “No Expectations”, and a version of the Crystal Gayle hit “When I Dream” (first recorded on Clement’s 1978 album, All I Want To Do In Life).
Lloyd played only one song from his Foster & Lloyd days (“Crazy Over You”), instead concentrating on his more recent pop material. “It Came From The South” applied geographical certainty to indigenous musical mysteries, while “Blue Radio” was a sweeping, lovely, intentionally Orbisonesque ballad. Burnette, whose father Dorsey and uncle Johnny were two-thirds of the legendary Rock ‘n’ Roll Trio, put both his country songwriting skills (“She’s Gonna Win Your Heart”) and his train-rhythmed rockabilly (“Can’t Get Over You”) on display. Camp’s best moments came on the rollicking “My Love Will Not Change” and on the co-written (with Guy Clark) tale of “Sis Draper”.
But everyone deferred to Cowboy, who delightedly talked about everything from Ohio (“Oh, you’ve got to go to Cleveland, son”), Sun Records (“Everybody was crazy in Memphis. Probably still are. I hope so, ’cause I may go back there sometime”), and the perils of placing songs with other singers (“I wrote this song for Dean Martin, and he didn’t cut it. Johnny Cash did, but he didn’t do it the way I wanted it,” he said, introducing “I Guess Things Happen That Way”).
When he wasn’t talking, Clement was singing. And while the four men never got their guitars into properly synchronized tune, they played in spiritual sync while Ferguson laid down the bass and Cowboy crooned “A Girl I Used To Know” and the heartbreaking “Let’s All Help The Cowboys (Sing The Blues)”. Clement’s run through “Miller’s Cave” — a song that has been recorded by (among others) Hank Snow, Bobby Bare and Gram Parsons’ International Submarine Band — was a reminder of Clement’s integral position in the histories of various American roots music genres. It’s his flag, but he’s happy for us to dance around it.