“If you never chase fashion, you’ll never go out of style,” said author Peter Guralnick as he described Cowboy Jack Clement , a legendary producer, songwriter and creative oddball for more than 60 years.
Indeed, that comment kicked off a quirky celebration befitting of Clement’s one-of-a-kind nature at Nashville’s War Memorial Auditorium Wednesday night (Jan. 30). Included in the night were an eclectic mix of artists, actors and even politicians.
The show, Honoring a Legend: A Tribute to Cowboy Jack Clement, was organized by Matt Urmy, musician and CEO of Artist Growth, to benefit the Music Health Alliance. Proceeds will be donated to launch the new Cowboy Jack Clement Fund to help curb the cost of medical bills incurred by musicians who are not covered by insurance.
The cause is one that’s close to Clement’s heart and long career. And it’s a career whose importance is difficult to convey, such is its wide-reaching influence.
A Nashville transplant, Clement may be best known as the original recording engineer at Sun Studios in Memphis, Tenn., the workshop that turned out greats like Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash . He also wrote many important hits like Cash’s “Ballad of a Teenage Queen” and Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton ’s “Just Someone I Used to Know” and discovered and helped break Charley Pride at a time when segregation was still the unspoken law of the land.
A member of the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, but not yet the Country Music Hall of Fame or Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Clement discovered Jerry Lee Lewis , revitalized Cash’s career, inspired Waylon Jennings and mentored countless producers and songwriters. He had a knack for coaxing greatness out of his artists and challenged the status quo of the music business.
Those are accomplishments deserving of praise, but Thursday night was focused on the friendship, compassion and originality Clement fostered in musicians of all stripes.
His home in Nashville, known as the Cowboy Arms Hotel and Recording Spa, was always open to an artist in need. Now he would be honored by some of those same folks, many of whom have gone on to lead successful careers.
But first, he had to make his entrance, and for the man known as the Pied Piper of Nashville, nothing less than a marching polka band would do.
With the War Memorial’s grand ballroom floor turned into a gala dining hall, the 81-year-old danced his way to his seat in the center of the room, followed by the band and sat down in a large arm chair as the audience stood and applauded.
Admirers were then treated to three hours of stories from Clement’s colorful life, video spots from admirers and clips from some of Clement’s attempts to film wacky TV specials. Most were never finished, but all were endlessly entertaining, especially the cartoon appearances by William Shakespeare.
Some of the night’s distinguished speakers included producer and friend Allen Reynolds, who recalled Clement’s fertile imagination in the years after his split from Sam Phillips and Sun Records. Reynolds would take what he learned from Clement in Beaumont, Texas, and eventually make his own mark as Garth Brooks ’ producer.
Jim Rooney, producer, guitarist, friend and eyewitness to the happenings at the Cowboy Arms Hotel and Recording Spa, spoke about Clement’s constant reminders to “believe in magic” and described his eccentric lifestyle.
Allison Clement read a poem dedicated to her father, and the Cowboy was even awarded with the honorary title of Ambassador of Goodwill for the state of Tennessee.
Video shout outs came from former President Bill Clinton, Taylor Swift , Marty Stuart , U2’s Bono, producer Rick Rubin and actors Ted Danson, Mary Steenburgen, John C. Reilly and Dennis Quaid, while actress Connie Britton of ABC’s Nashville read a letter of congratulations from first lady Michelle Obama.
All professed their love and admiration, and the variety of Clement’s friends and connections alone was staggering.
As for the music, the guest list was beyond impressive.
Shawn Camp and Billy Burnette kicked things off with a cover of Billy Lee Riley’s “Red Hot,” followed by Prine singing “Ballad of a Teenage Queen.” Del McCoury , Tim O’Brien and Sam Bush represented Clement’s bluegrass pals, doing “Miller’s Cave” and “Dirty Old Egg Sucking Dog.”
Pride took a moment to express his profound thanks to the man who first believed in him and proceeded to sing two of his biggest hits, “Just Between You and Me,” which was written by Clement, and “Kiss an Angel Good Morning.”
Next up was Clement’s old friend Dickey Lee doing “She Thinks I Still Care,” followed by Vince Gill performing a longing rendition of “Does My Ring Hurt Your Finger.”
Young artists also showed their respect. Amos Lee delivered an honest feeling “I Know One,” about a fool willing to wait for his love to come around. Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys and Nashville local Nikki Lane harmonized beautifully on “Someone I Used to Know,” and Jacob Dylan of the Wallflowers took the stage for “Waymore’s Blues.”
Singer-songwriter Marshall Chapman said after her first meeting with Clement in the ’70s, she’s never been quite right. She proceeded to get the audience to sing along on “Let’s All Help the Cowboys (Sing the Blues).”
Kristofferson praised the honored guest, saying Clement was one of the first people he met while on leave from the Army in the ’60s. That meeting inspired him to resign his commission and move to Nashville full time, which he said delighted Clement but not Kristofferson’s mother.
“I owe every good thing that ever happened in my life to Jack,” said the silver-haired legend before jumping in to “Big River.”
Currently battling cancer, Clement shakily made his way to center stage and seated himself on a barstool, soaking up the warm applause with a smile.
“Now what?” he joked as the crowd took their seats.
“Relax!” yelled someone in the audience, using one of Clement’s signature lines.
He repeated the motto and started up the band for an emotional rendition of “When I Dream.” With a surprisingly strong voice, he kept singing for three more songs, “Good Hearted Woman,” “Gone Girl” and “Brazil.”
As he stood and gave a wave, the self-made Cowboy was immediately surrounded and embraced with hugs.