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
ND: Did that feel like something monumental was going on?
JC: I knew I liked it, and I knew everybody I saw that day liked it and they were all talking about it. When I first heard it, it was kind of like, “Why didn’t I do that?” The sound wasn’t all that strange to me. I had done similar things onstage, with slapping bass and that kind of stuff. But not on the radio, not on records. To me it was like a fart without any aroma. [With that, Jack smiles and pushes a button on one of his many desktop trinkets. This one sounds off, “Fart detected! Fart detected! Evacuate!”]
ND: When you brought that first record to Sam Phillips, were you seeking to begin a working relationship?
JC: No, I hired him to master a record for me, one that I’d recorded on Billy Lee Riley. He had the lathe and the reputation as the guy in town that did that. When I went to pick the tape up, he told me he liked that record and wanted to know if I’d be interested in having it on Sun and he’d pay us a penny a record. Then he asked me what I was doing. I said I’d been going to Memphis State but now I was working at a building supply place. I said “‘Course, I don’t like it very much.” He said, “Well, maybe you ought to come to work for me.” I said “Maybe I should.” Two weeks later, I did.
So when I went to work with Sam, I brought him a finished product. I never considered myself an engineer, per se. I was one of the few early musician types that were running a board. To me it was like a musical instrument. I was an operator, not an engineer.
Sam’s whole thing was “Do something different!” as long as it didn’t cost him too much money. He knew he couldn’t compete with Nashville in a standard musical way. It was a very free atmosphere. I was in hog heaven. All of a sudden, I had echo. I wasn’t trying to get reality, you know? I was trying to make it sound better than reality. A lot of times it did.
(Shawn Camp, a friend and member of Clement’s band, sits down and poses a question.)
SHAWN CAMP: Jack, you told me one time about selling a bunch of Sun records one time. What did you say happened with that?
JC: See, we had these returns at Sun. You ship a lot of records, you get a lot of returns. And the returns would usually come into the studio, and they’d stack ’em out there. Sometimes there’d be so many records out in the studio that it’d change the sound of the place. When we’d move ’em out, it would sound more “live” in there, because those records would absorb sound.
Anyway, it was starting to get full one time and I said to Sam, “Why don’t we take ’em out to the plant and sell ’em by the pound, for scrap. They could grind ’em up and make new records out of ’em.” Sam said “OK.” Aw, we ground up millions of ’em. I’m sure there was a bunch of Elvis in there. It was a lot of records. Sold ’em by the pound. We didn’t get very much for them. That’s probably the reason a lot of them records are in short supply.
II. YOU MISS SOMETHING WHEN YOU DON’T HAVE THOSE WINDOWS OPEN
ND: When you left that situation at Sun and came to Nashville, how did the town feel to you?
JC: It seemed square.
ND: Did you regret leaving Sun?
JC: Not really. I left Sun in February of ’59, and I was ready to go. I could have stayed. Sam fired me and Bill Justis one night when he got drunk. He wrote us letters. I’m sure he regretted it the next day. He even offered to set me up a distributor label. But Cash was gone, Jerry Lee wasn’t selling, nothing much was happening. I was thinking I could get out of town and do something else. Go to Nashville.
ND: That didn’t last too long, and you went to Beaumont soon after. Why go to Texas?
JC: I wanted to go someplace where I could have fun and cut local records. They had a sound going down there, regional kind of stuff. The variations of style, that was what made country music. That appealed to me more than trying to follow trends. Well, within six months after I got there we cut a million-seller, “Patches”, with Dickey Lee.
ND: Why leave Beaumont, then?
JC: I was getting tired of it and started wanting to go to Nashville or something. The last year I was down there, I mostly wrote songs, so when I came to Nashville I had 30 or so good ones. When I moved here, I started getting them cut pretty quick. That was good, because I didn’t have a lot of money; I think I hit town with $135 in the bank, but I never ran out.
ND: Somewhere in there, I’d heard you were going to write a book.
JC: Yeah, but I was taking a bath one night and Bobby Bare called me. At that point, I’d decided to get out of the music business and write a book. So every day I’d go into my office, smoke cigarettes and write. Just plain cigarettes, though. Anyway, I’d decided to sell my publishing company to Bill Hall, for $75,000. He had the check cut and everything. That’s when I was taking that bath, and Bobby Bare called and told me that a song I’d written called “Miller’s Cave” was going to be his next single. Well, I thought that was such a neat thing and I told Bill I’d like to get out of the sale.
ND: Bare is an important guy. Maybe more than he gets credit for sometimes.
JC: People respected him. Good songs, good voice. And he was a great ballad singer. I think people forget that.