Cowboy Jack Clement Looks at Life

Iconic Producer and Songwriter Takes 26 Years Between Solo Albums

At Sun Records in Memphis, he engineered and produced recordings that defined rock ‘n’ roll. While there, he wrote several hits, including “Ballad of a Teenage Queen” for Johnny Cash and “It’ll Be Me” for Jerry Lee Lewis.

During a stint in Beaumont, Texas, he produced Dickey Lee’s national pop hit, “Patches,” and talked George Jones into recording one of Lee’s songs, “She Thinks I Still Care.”

In Nashville, he talked Chet Atkins into offering a record deal to Charley Pride, producing the singer’s first 20 albums that made him country music’s only black superstar. He brought Nashville its first 16-track studio, where Ray Stevens immediately produced the international pop hit, “Everything Is Beautiful.”

As a producer, his credits include projects with Louis Armstrong, Townes Van Zandt, several of Cash’s later albums, Waylon Jennings’ classic Dreaming My Dreams album and three tracks for U2′s 1988 album, Rattle and Hum.

Those are just part of the true stories Cowboy Jack Clement can claim. God only knows the ones he’s probably forgotten or shares only with his close friends. And Jack Clement has made plenty of friends through more than a half-century in the music business.

CMT.com’s visit with Clement at his home — also known as the Cowboy Arms Hotel and Recording Spa — was aimed primarily at discussing his recent album, Guess Things Happen That Way, but the conversation takes frequent turns toward history, trivia and enlightenment. Clement’s Dualtone CD is only the second solo album of his career. The first one, All I Want to Do in Life, was released in 1978.

“I got diverted,” the 73-year-old Clement says in explaining 26-year-gap. “And I didn’t have a real incentive. Nobody was saying they wanted to put a record out or anything. But I got back into wanting to produce some things with Shawn Camp and then Billy Burnett.”

The new album evolved after Clement performed a series of concerts in Nashville in 2003 during his tenure as artist in residence at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. He documented the performances in a multi-camera video shoot, but that was nothing new for him. Clement’s interest in film and video once prompted him to produce a horror film, Dear Dead Delilah. In 1972, he produced a brief film on Don Williams, one of several artists whose career he launched. Long before MTV was launched, it was one of the first music videos ever produced.

“We had to go to Chicago to edit it,” he recalls. “We had it on film cameras and video tape. At the time, there wasn’t a place in town that could handle all of that at once. We had to go to Chicago to edit the damn thing — a little three-minute piece.”

Born just south of Memphis, Clement found himself living in the nation’s capital in 1952 after serving a hitch in the U.S. Marines. Teaming with Buzz Busby and Scotty Stoneman, he performed throughout the East Coast as Buzz and Jack & the Bayou Boys.

“Washington, D.C., at that time, was a big hillbilly place,” Clement says. “Hillbilly joints all over the place. Plenty of good musicians around there. D.C. was a great place to be back then. It was safe. You could ride streetcars everywhere. There was always something happening. And a whole lot of beautiful women working in them government offices. It was a groovy place to be when you’re 19 or 21.”

After an unsuccessful audition for the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Clement headed back to Memphis, where he produced his first record — rockabilly legend Bill Lee Riley’s “Rock With Me Baby.” Impressed with the 1956 single, Sun Records founder Sam Phillips noted, “This is the first rock ‘n’ roll anybody’s brought me around here,” and offered Clement a job at the Sun Studio.

By then, Elvis Presley had already left the Sun roster, but Clement spent plenty of time at the mixing board during sessions with Lewis, Cash, Charlie Rich, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison and many others.

“With Johnny Cash, his voice always intrigued me because it’s got so much power in it,” Clement says. “It gets on the tape, and you can put symphony orchestras with it or a roomful of banjos or a roomful of horns or whole bunch of rhythm guitars — whatever you want — and it doesn’t drown him out. I always called him ‘Captain Decibel’ for that reason. The loudest recording voice I ever heard. Just thick, full. It’s like a great solo instrument.”

Guess Things Happen That Way features Cash’s vocals on two songs — “Ballad of a Teenage Queen” (recorded in 1981) and the title track (recorded about six months prior to Cash’s death in 2003).

These days, Clement has been busy producing a new album by Country Music Hall of Fame member Eddy Arnold and working with producer T Bone Burnett for the soundtrack of the upcoming Johnny Cash film biography, Walk the Line.

Asked to reflect on specific decades, Clement responds, “The ’70s was a pretty good time, especially the early ’70s. They were playing some decent music. Radio hadn’t gotten all monopolized and corrupt.”

Noting a greater sense of community within Nashville’s music industry back then, he explains, “It was a lot smaller. It was mostly contained in a little two or three block area down there. People would mill around and walk over from one office to another, pitching songs. You’d run into people on the parking lot out behind RCA and Columbia. It was a lot smaller, a lot simpler, a lot less competitive, and people still appreciated a good song. That was more the determining factor back then — whether it was a good song. I always believed that if you have a good song and somebody sings it right and the band plays it right, it can hit anytime.

“I don’t remember much about the ’80s,” he adds. “I kind of turned it all off and kept doing what I did. You know, do what I do and let the rest of the world go by — or drop in — whatever they choose.”

Although he doesn’t pay close attention to what’s happening on Nashville’s Music Row these days, Clement says, “I know basically what goes on. I know they’ve got a bunch of idiots doing jobs they’re terribly unqualified for, making artistic decisions.

“It may be getting better. They may be starting to pay attention a little bit. Somebody’s got to pay attention. We all know that records aren’t selling as much as they were, and there’s a lot fewer artists that are selling and a whole lot of new ways opening up to compete with radio. It’s an indication to me that people are waiting to hear something besides bullshit.”

Ever-increasing corporate expectations have taken a toll on large record labels and their executives.

“They’re terribly shortsighted because they’re all under pressure from all these boards,” he notes. “If they don’t make the right decision, they’re out. They’re all afraid to try anything different. Like some producer, if he wants to do something different, it ain’t gonna happen unless the label backs him up.”

Consequently, there’s a danger of the attitude filtering down to producers, musicians and songwriters.

“They [major labels] say, ‘Bring me something different,’” Clement contends. “But if you bring them something different, they say, ‘Well, that’s too different.’ They don’t want that. It’s too far out.”

What’s the most different song Clement has ever presented anybody?

“Maybe ‘Flushed From the Bathroom of Your Heart’ or ‘Dirty Old Egg Sucking Dog,’” Clement smiles. “And Johnny Cash was silly enough to record songs like that. Who wouldn’t love a guy like him? He’d do anything.”

Calvin Gilbert has served as CMT.com’s managing editor since 2002. His background includes stints at the Nashville Banner, Radio & Records and Westwood One.