HOT DISH: Cowboy Is a Jack of All Trades

Never a Star, Jack Clement's Genius Makes Him a Legend

(CMT Hot Dish is a weekly feature written by veteran columnist Hazel Smith. Author of the cookbook, Hazel’s Hot Dish: Cookin’ With Country Stars, she also shares her recipes at CMT.com.)

In 1963, when Johnny Cash recorded “Ring of Fire,” he needed mariachi horns. But who could arrange them? “Find Cowboy,” uttered Cash in his deep Arkansas drawl. They flew Cowboy from Texas to Nashville, where he arranged and produced a huge hit using the first mariachi horns in country music.

Cowboy Jack Clement is not a star, but he’s an honest to God legend.

Those who know say if there were no Cowboy, there would have been no Sun Records in Memphis. Cowboy denies this. Had there been no Sun, they say there’d be no rock ‘n’ roll. Cowboy shrugs at the suggestion. Sam Phillips, who owned and ran Sun, had Elvis Presley and Carl Perkins on his artist roster when he hired Cowboy as an engineer, producer and assistant after hearing a recording he produced, Billy Lee Riley’s “Rock Me Baby.” Sam bought the track.

When Jerry Lee Lewis sat down, played piano and sang at Sun, it was Jack who recorded it. That’s why there is a Jerry Lee. Sun is where Cowboy met Cash, Lewis, Roy Orbison, Elvis, Charlie Rich and Perkins. Lewis, the last man standing, will tell you they were lucky to know Cowboy.

Born in 1932 in Memphis, Cowboy began playing guitar and Dobro at an early age. By 13, he had a steel guitar. He was a Marine from 1948 through 1952, stationed in Washington, D.C., where he learned banjo and worked with the Stonemans, Jimmy Dean and Roy Clark, among others. After his military service, he went back to Memphis and college and became an Arthur Murray dancing instructor. As a matter of fact, the first time I saw Cowboy, he was in a recording studio playing a ukulele and dancing. He produced, published and wrote “California Girl (and the Tennessee Square),” a hit for Tompall & the Glaser Brothers. Cowboy always knew when it was good. He celebrated by providing ukulele music while doing an Arthur Murray waltz, a practice he continues.

With an ear for hits and a great songwriter himself, Jack discovered the songwriting team of Jerry Foster and Bill Rice in 1961. He was mentor to singer-songwriter Dickey Lee, whom he produced, and Allen Reynolds, a member of the Collegiates. A former banker, Reynolds ended up producing hit records by Crystal Gayle, Kathy Mattea and Garth Brooks and running a recording studio. Early on, Allen, Dickey and Jack called each other cowboy — and the name stuck with Clement.

Jack penned the No. 1 hit, “I Know One,” for Jim Reeves in 1960. He moved to Beaumont, Texas, where he and Bill Hall set up Hall-Clement Music. In Twang Town, he set up Jack Music, a production and publishing company. He and Hall owned Jack & Bill Publishing.

In Nashville, artist manager Jack Johnson played Cowboy a demo by a newcomer named Charley Pride. Cowboy produced a tape on Pride that Chet Atkins turned down at RCA Records — but not because of the music. Later Atkins signed Pride, saying, “He might get big as Elvis.” Cowboy produced Pride’s first album — and the rest is history. Were it not for Cowboy, there’d be no Charley Pride.

Cowboy made millions with his songwriting, producing, recording studios and publishing. Everything he touched turned to gold until Hollywood called. He became the producer of Dear Dead Delilah, a film starring Agnes Moorehead, and used his money to bankroll the project with the idea of making more money from the movie. Rumor has it, the movie broke Cowboy financially, but it never broke his spirit.

You can’t keep a good man down, though. He sold his Jack’s Tracks studio on Music Row’s 16th Avenue to old friend Reynolds and sold the building that housed his publishing and production company. But he kept his home, naming it the Cowboy Arms Hotel, where he still lives and makes records.

Cowboy started a record label, JMI Records, and recorded Don Williams while forgetting to sign a contract. In the mid-’70s, Williams signed with Dot Records. About that time, Cowboy produced the incredible Dreaming My Dreams album by Waylon Jennings — and married Waylon’s sister-in-law, Sharon Johnson. His friendship with Waylon and wife Jessi Colter lasted, but the marriage to Jessi’s sister didn’t and neither did Cowboy’s two marriages to his first wife, Doris, the mother of his two children, Niles and Alison.

The Cowboy has eclectic music taste and has produced bluegrass (Mac Wiseman), mountain (Doc Watson), Appalachian (Stonemans), folk (John Prine, John Hartford), polka (Frank Yankovic), rock (U2), classic country (Cash), country comedy (Sheb Wooley), early rock (Charlie Rich) and rhythm & blues (Louis Armstrong). The list goes on. It’s mostly an A-list of great artists.

Like a big rubber ball, the word genius is carelessly tossed around on Music Row. However, it’s safe to say Cowboy Jack Clement is one of the few rare geniuses of our town. I wonder if Cowboy would have — and could have — focused on one entity, would he have taken a project to the highest plain of success, like Stephen Spielberg or Bill Gates. But if he had, he wouldn’t be Cowboy. Like his self-penned song, “Let’s All Help the Cowboys Sing the Blues,” Cowboy has to do a little Shakespeare now and then … and he has to do a little dance and sing … and write and find stars … perform, produce and, of course, party.

In 2003, Cowboy was artist in residence at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville, where he performed every Monday in October to a full house. More recently, he produced 87-year-old Hall of Fame member Eddy Arnold’s new RCA album, After All These Years, that’s set for release in August. Another 87-year-old Hall of Famer, songwriter Cindy Walker, came out of retirement to write the title song.

Cowboy won two awards at this year’s Nashville Film Festival 2005 for his entertaining homemade movie, Cowboy Jack’s Home Movies (or, Shakespeare Was a Big George Jones Fan). (By the way, Cowboy is the man who first pitched “She Thinks I Still Care” to George Jones in 1962!) He currently hosts his own Saturday afternoon program on Sirius Satellite Radio.

Cowboy has touched everyone in the biz one way or another. By setting an example, he made songwriters write better, singers sing better, musicians play better, producers make better records and he’d waltz into a record label and straighten out what needed straightening — most of the time after he was called to help.

He’s 73 but doesn’t look it — and doesn’t act it. At his age, it’s time we say, “Thanks, Cowboy, for your unselfish teaching and for being a music maker and a rule breaker.

Seen and Heard
Alison Krauss and Cheryl White recently enjoyed a Nashville Sounds baseball game.

Toby Keith will be inducted into the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame in Muskogee on Oct. 27.

When the tour was over and the Two Hats worn by Terri Clark and Brad Paisley were hung up, redhead Reba McEntire headed to the recording studio in Music Town. I hear busy Reba will release a greatest hits package pretty soon that will include all her No.1 singles. She’s back to the biz of Hollywood in August to tape her hit TV sitcom, Reba.

Will somebody please tell me why Billy Currington went all the way to Puerto Rico to shoot a video for “Must Be Doin’ Somethin’ Right”? Or is the boy smart enough to fiddle fad around and get a freebie trip to the exotic island resort?

The great Earl Scruggs will be traveling to Asheville, N.C., on July 22 to accept the North Carolina Newspaper Association’s North Carolina Citizen of the Year award. Yet another plaque for his wife, Louise, to hang on the wall, Incidentally, Earl tells me he had his beagle’s collar in his hand and got zinged by the electric fence, not around his neck as reported last week.

Phil Sweetland pointed out to me that Jessica Simpson, interviewed about her role as Daisy Duke in the movie version of The Dukes of Hazzard told Premiere magazine, “One of my favorite people in the world is Dolly Parton. She’s my role model, and she can do it all.” Who knew Jessica was that smart?

Brooks & Dunn have nixed their bubble-blowing goat as their opening act, opting for the Warren Brothers and Big & Rich to join them for the Deuces Wild tour beginning in August.

See the new Hot Dish recipe of the week: Eight-Day Pickles.