Cowboy Jack Clement – Singers are a pain in the ass if you want to know the truth about it. Most of ’em. Well, all of ’em: A conversation with Cowboy Jack Clement
It hasn’t all worked out for Cowboy Jack Clement. Back in the 1970s, he lost a healthy life’s savings producing an obscure horror movie called Dear Dead Delilah. He helped launch the career of mondo-successful country artist Don Williams but failed to sign Williams to his JMI Records label, and the lack of Williams-spurred profits may have kept him from making a serious run at populating a space colony.
Otherwise, things have gone pretty well. Remarkably, actually. In the 1950s, Clement was an integral part of the Sun Records scene that introduced rock ‘n’ roll to an unsuspecting American populace. As Sam Phillips’ engineer/producer/songwriter/right-hand man, Clement was the first guy to record Jerry Lee Lewis, and he was there at Sun to work with Johnny Cash, Charley Pride, Roy Orbison and other greats.
The Sun years would, on their own, serve as a considerable legacy. But after leaving Phillips in 1959, Clement worked briefly in Nashville with Chet Atkins before heading to Beaumont, Texas, and cutting a million-seller with Dickey Lee.
After that, it was back to Nashville, where he became: the discoverer and producer of Charley Pride; the mastermind behind an early (some say the first) concept album, Bobby Bare’s Bird Named Yesterday; the early champion of Williams; a creative mentor to producer Allen Reynolds (Crystal Gayle, Garth Brooks, etc.); early-career producer of the legendary singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt; producer of fine albums by Johnny Cash and John Hartford, and of Waylon Jennings’ landmark Dreaming My Dreams, which Jennings considered his personal high-water mark; owner of a recording studio in which memorable works by Alison Krauss, Nanci Griffith, Iris DeMent and others were captured; and the answer to a thousand intriguing trivia questions, small and large. (Who wrote “Just Someone I Used To Know”? Who filmed comedy skits involving Johnny Cash that would put Saturday Night Live to shame if they were ever released? Who is the self-proclaimed “Polka King of Nashville”? Who is the only Nashvillian to have produced songs for U2?)
Throughout all of the odd, sometimes disjointed segments of his career, Clement has been known for good humor, high intelligence and a fevered aversion to stepping in line. He’s been called a weirdo and a fraud, though (as Peter Guralnick noted more than a quarter-century ago in his glorious book, Lost Highway) Clement’s resume of culture-tweaking success should preclude the latter notion.
He spends most of his time at his famed home/recording studio on Nashville’s Belmont Avenue, entertaining a steady stream of visitors and accomplices with more songs, more stories and more laughs. The place is its own kind of heaven. Clement may turn up the stereo and play country songs he produced for Louis Armstrong, Shawn Camp may drop by to chat, Eddy Arnold may stop by to work on an upcoming album, or Eugene the cat may jump on Cowboy’s desk and show off his high-fiving ability.
Those who have heard Clement sing — his crooning voice conveying equal amounts whimsy and dusky sadness — sometimes refer to him as one of Nashville’s great unknown recording artists. His long out-of-print All I Want To Do In Life, released in 1978, has been his only commercially released solo album. Now 73, he’ll seek to remove the “unknown” part of that equation with the September 14 release of Guess Things Happen That Way (yes, he wrote that classic Johnny Cash song) on Dualtone Records.
I. I WASN’T TRYING TO GET REALITY, YOU KNOW? I WAS TRYING TO MAKE IT SOUND BETTER THAN REALITY.
NO DEPRESSION: Back in 1958, Sun Records sent out a press release that announced “the groundwork for Jack’s predicted fame and fortune has been methodically laid.” How intent were you at that point on being a recording artist?
JACK CLEMENT: Well, at that point I wasn’t all that intent on it. I was intent on it in 1952 and ’53, but after awhile I decided I didn’t really want to do that. It was too much of a commitment. Besides that, I noticed that every time I’d go play somewhere I’d always want to have a few cocktails, and I could see where that would lead me. I might have been a drunk! Instead of something better, for instance.
ND: Did your interest in different music hurt you as far as developing in a particular direction?
JC: I think so. I wanted to have fun and play a lot of different stuff. I’d get tired of bluegrass and want to play Hawaiian music for awhile. And I enjoyed playing for dances. I wasn’t a dancer back at that point, but I knew what got people on the floor. I’d like to do that again, have a dance band. Not just do dance numbers all the time, but throw in a samba, do a tango. “Hernando’s Hideaway”, that’s a good one. (Here, Cowboy croons, “I know a dark secluded place/A place where no one knows your face.”)
ND: Did you immediately latch onto rock ‘n’ roll when you heard it?
JC: First time I heard Elvis, I loved it. It was the morning after Dewey Phillips had first played it. Next morning, Sleepy Eyed John came on at 9 a.m. and he come on with “Blue Moon”. He played that all day, that and “That’s All Right, Mama”. By the end of the day, Elvis was a big star in Memphis.