Nashville, TN—Cowboy Jack Clement’s last musical work—titled For Once and For All and produced by longtime cohort Dave “Fergie” Ferguson and Matt Sweeney with T Bone Burnett as executive producer—is the debut release on John Grady’s new I.R.S. Records Nashville label and available today whereever music is sold.
“What an honor it is to be involved with Cowboy’s final record. This is the perfect way to start I.R.S. Nashville,” Grady says. “All the producers and musicians set the tone for this record. Sometimes we should all get together and do the right thing. I hope Jack is proud of us.”
This is Cowboy’s final album, his swan song. There are only three Cowboy Jack Clement records. He didn’t like to rush things. Sometimes he’d wonder what the smartest man in the world might do, and he’d figure the smartest man in the world might just wait things out.
He was 82-years-old when he died on August 8, 2013 and 82 when he finished this song-set with help from friends including John Prine, Emmylou Harris, Bobby Bare, Duane Eddy, T Bone Burnett, Vince Gill, Marty Stuart, Rodney Crowell, Buddy Miller, Dan Auerbach, Leon Russell, Gillian Welch, Dave Rawlings, Dickie Lee, Shawn Camp, Dierks Bentley, Jim Rooney, Jim Lauderdale, Will Oldham, daughter Alison Clement and a bunch of others who loved Cowboy and who Cowboy loved in return. His favorite accordionist, Joey Miskulin, played on “The Air Conditioner Song” and “Baby Is Gone.”
The whole thing is graceful and true, a primer for the unfamiliar, an anointed completion for the acolytes and a joy-filled lesson for those of us who study phrasing, musicality and soul.
Cowboy Jack was American music’s whimsical maverick. He was a singer and producer, a publisher, a best friend to Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings. He was a writer of classic songs. He desegregated country music by bringing Charley Pride to popular attention and producing Pride’s first 13 albums for RCA. He was the first to record Jerry Lee Lewis and Roy Orbison, there at the popular birth of rock ‘n’ roll at Sun Records in Memphis.
He made the greatest album of country music’s “Outlaw Movement” when he produced Waylon Jennings’ Dreaming My Dreams. He created the Cowboy Arms Hotel and Recording Spa, Nashville’s first great home studio and the nerve center for what would come to be known as Americana Music.
He co-produced “Angel of Harlem” and “When Love Comes To Town” for an Irish rock band called U2. He inspired John Prine, Dolly Parton, Louis Armstrong, Townes Van Zandt, The Black Keys, Emmylou Harris and oodles more.
“If you unraveled all the threads Jack wove into the tapestry of what made country music great over the last 50 plus years, the whole thing would come apart,” Harris said.
No one unraveled those threads, though, and no one will. Can’t be done. The Cowboy’s tapestry weave is secure and indelible, and his import is ratified by a plaque in the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Cowboy Jack Clement sustained an unprecedented and unduplicated career outside of the public eye. He and fame saw each other across a crowded street, waved and went their separate ways.
Though he was in and around recording studios all of his adult life, he didn’t release a solo album, All I Want To Do In Life, until 1978, when he was in his late 40s. The follow-up came a quarter century later with 2004’s Guess Things Happen That Way. And he rarely toured. So while Clement impacted myriad major careers, he did little to promote his own.
“I don’t remember it being any huge letdown,” he said, recalling the less-than-platinum sales of All I Want To Do In Life. “It took a few months before you realized you ain’t gonna outdo Elvis or something, and by that time I was off into something else.”
Cowboy was always off into something else. He was born in Whitehaven, Tennessee, a Memphis suburb, and left there to join the Marines. Stationed in Washington, DC, where he once saluted Princess Elizabeth as a member of the Marine Corps Drill Team, he began playing music professionally with Buzz Busby. After his discharge, he went with Busby to West Virginia and Massachusetts, then headed back south to Memphis to go to college.
Soon, he was fronting a dance band at the Eagle’s Nest, sharing a stage with Elvis Presley. He made a record on rockabilly singer Billy Lee Riley, then showed that record to Sun Records boss man Sam Phillips. Soon, Clement was engineering and producing records for Sun: His first day in that studio was spent recording Roy Orbison.
At Sun, Clement discovered Jerry Lee Lewis, wrote “Ballad of a Teenage Queen” and “Guess Things Happen That Way” for Johnny Cash, recorded culture-altering sessions (including Presley, Cash, Lewis and Carl Perkins’ “Million Dollar Quartet”), developed some life philosophies (“Whatever may be wrong with the world, at least it has some good things to eat” is one) and got fired over a boozy misunderstanding. He and Phillips remained friends throughout their lives, and, anyway, 1959 was a good time to leave Sun, which was flailing after losing Presley and Cash.
After a stint working at RCA for Chet Atkins, Clement moved to Beaumont, Texas and opened a record label and publishing firm that launched Dickey Lee’s “She Thinks I Still Care” and “Patches.” among other songs. Then he headed to Nashville, where he had the open ears and mind required to arrange the horns on Cash’s “Ring of Fire,” to produce records on a monumental, dark-skinned talent named Charley Pride during the South’s segregated mid-1960s and to produce unconventional song-poet Townes Van Zandt.
In 1970, he built Jack Clement Recording Studios, the first 16-track studio in Nashville.
Two years later, he founded JMI Records and Jack Music, working with future Country Music Hall of Famer Don Williams, and in 1975 he recorded friend Waylon Jennings’ greatest work, Dreaming My Dreams. After that, the Cowboys’ creative life centered around the Cowboy Arms Hotel & Recording Spa on Belmont Boulevard, where he recorded, mentored, made home movies, built ukuleles, smoked reefer, talked on the phone and offered advice when artists like Nanci Griffith and Iris DeMent came by to make the records that set the sonic template for what would come to be called Americana music.
Though most comfortable at the Cowboy Arms, he and protege David Ferguson headed back to Sun Records to produce some tracks for U2’s Rattle and Hum album.
And, of course, there’s more…..
He was Nashville’s Polka King.
He was Shakespearian, though he sometimes disagreed with the Bard. Shakespeare had a line about “Be all my sins remembered,” to which Cowboy retorted, “Don’t hand me all this shit about all my sins remembered. I want my sins forgot.”
He was joyful, and hilarious, though his gaze could go from bemused to withering in the passing of a note or the draining of a vodka glass. There were lessons in his smile, and in his glare.
He was a spectacular failure, losing a million dollars making a movie called “Dear, Dead Delilah,” for which he forgot to write a script.
He was a grand success, enabling early rock, classic country, timeless folk, bluegrass and Americana.
He was a brilliant conversationalist. When the Cowboy Arms burned in 2011, he sidled up to friend Marshall Chapman, who had come to console amidst the flame and ash. In his Elvis Presley bathrobe, the Cowboy asked, “You wanna buy a house?”
The Cowboy was everything, it seems, but a cowboy: He was frightened of horses, and favored Hawaiian shirts and comfortable shoes. Someone called him “Cowboy” years ago, and it tickled him.
His telephone number was 615-383-0330. It never changed, and everyone had it. And he wanted it that way.
He was probably a genius, though we never made him prove it. “I’ve got a bunch of people who say I’m a genius,” he often mused. “That don’t make me a genius. But you’ve got to be pretty smart to get all them people to say that on cue.”