Cowboy Jack Clement, a Nashville Music Legend, Dies at Age 82

Named to Country Music Hall of Fame, He Worked With Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Don Williams, U2

A virtual jack of all trades in the entertainment business, Cowboy Jack Clement, 82, died Thursday (Aug. 8) at his Nashville home following a lengthy illness. He was to be officially inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame during ceremonies later this year.

At various times in his colorful life, he was a record and movie producer, songwriter, performing and recording artist, studio engineer, dance instructor and always a first-rate raconteur.

Over his long career, he produced records for an astounding array of artists, including Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Eddy Arnold, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Charlie Rich, Charley Pride, Louis Armstrong, U2, Tompall & the Glaser Brothers, the Stonemans, John Hartford, Mac Wiseman, Doc Watson, Frank Yankovic, John Prine, Emmylou Harris, Townes Van Zandt, Dickey Lee and Bobby Bare.

Jack Henderson Clement was born April 5, 1931, in the Whitehaven suburb of Memphis, Tenn. He began playing guitar and Dobro when he was still a teenager.

In 1948, he joined the Marines and spent the last two of his four years of service stationed in Washington, D. C. It was there that he met the Stonemans, a family whose roots in country music were even deeper than those of the famed Carter Family. In 1953, he teamed up with Scotty Stoneman and Buzz Busby to form the bluegrass band Buzz and Jack & the Bayou Boys.

Clement returned to Memphis in 1954 and hired on as a producer for Sun Records, where he worked with such young upstarts as Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Charlie Rich.

Sun Records fired him in 1959, and the following year he moved to Nashville where Chet Atkins took him on at RCA Records.

It was a short stay, however. In 1961, Clement left Nashville at the urging of producer and publisher Bill Hall and moved to Beaumont, Texas, where he and Hall opened Gulf Coast Recording Studio and the Hall-Clement publishing company. While in Beaumont, Clement also worked with Memphis pals Dickey Lee and Allen Reynolds and the burgeoning Texas songwriter Bob McDill.

During this period, Clement persuaded George Jones to record Lee’s “She Thinks I Still Care,” as well as one of Clement’s own compositions, “Just Someone I Used to Know.” The former became a No. 1 single for Jones in 1962 and is now memorialized in the Grammy Hall of Fame. The latter was a Top 5 hit in 1969 for Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton.

In 1963, Clement produced Johnny Cash’s signature hit, “Ring of Fire,” another Grammy Hall of Fame recording.

Clement returned to Nashville in 1965. After recording a demo session on Charley Pride, he convinced Atkins to sign the young African-American singer just as America was in the thick of the Civil Rights struggle.

Pride’s first two charted singles, “Just Between You and Me” and “I Know One,” were both penned by Clement, who would go on to produce Pride’s first 13 albums for RCA.

In 1972, he established JMI Records. As the label’s most visible artist, Don Williams‘ first five charted singles were on the JMI label and were all written either by the singer himself or by Clement allies, Allen Reynolds and Bob McDill.

Concurrent with the start of JMI, Clement masterminded and produced the horror movie Dear Dead Delilah. Starring veteran actors Agnes Moorehead and Will Geer, the film was a box office fizzle.

In 1973, Clement created for Williams’ “Come Early Morning” what is arguably the first country music concept video — even though there were no music videos at the time or an outlet for them. The film wove together segments showing Williams singing with clips of a truck driver coming home from the road to awaken his sleeping wife. Inserted at random into the story were silhouette shots of Clement doing a soft-shoe dance.

That same year, he was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall Fame in a class that also included Harlan Howard, Don Gibson, Roger Miller and Willie Nelson.

Among the many other hits Clement wrote were Cash’s “Ballad of a Teenage Queen” (No. 1 for 10 weeks) and “Guess Things Happen That Way” (No. 1 for eight weeks), Bare’s “Miller’s Cave,” Waylon Jennings’ “Let’s All Help the Cowboy (Sing The Blues)” and Tompall & the Glaser Brothers’ “California Girl (and the Tennessee Square).”

Several of his lighter tunes became standards for Cash, notably “The One on the Right Is on the Left,” “Dirty Old Egg-Sucking Dog,” “Everybody Loves a Nut” and the metaphorical massacre, “Flushed From the Bathroom of Your Heart.”

Clement made his debut as a major-label artist in 1978 via Elektra Records’ release of his album All I Want to Do in Life. The album yielded three chart singles — “We Must Believe in Magic,” “When I Dream” and “All I Want to Do in Life” — none of which rose higher than the low 80s on the country chart.

During Clement’s middle and late years, his Cowboy Arms Hotel and Recording Spa in his home on Nashville’s Belmont Avenue became a popular hangout for songwriters and singers of all magnitudes. Among his guests were the members of U2, who recorded a portion of their 1988 album, Rattle and Hum, with him. The house and much of the memorabilia it contained were destroyed by fire in 2011.

In 2002, the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum tapped Clement to be its first artist-in-residence. In 2004, the Americana Music Association honored him with its lifetime achievement award. Also that year, Dualtone Records released the second album of his career, Guess Things Happen That Way.

Clement’s Cowboy Jack’s Home Movies won best documentary honors at the 2005 Nashville Film Festival. The same year, directors Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville produced a documentary about Clement titled Shakespeare Was a Big George Jones Fan. Released on DVD in 2007, it featured comments from such kindly disposed luminaries as Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Dolly Parton and U2′s Bono.

Clement was honored during a concert at Nashville’s War Memorial in January 2013. Musical tributes were provided by Kris Kristofferson, John Prine, Amos Lee, Del McCoury, Tim O’Brien, Sam Bush, Rodney Crowell, Emmylou Harris, T Bone Burnett, Jakob Dylan, Buddy Miller, John Hiatt and Black Keys member Dan Auerbach. Video messages were provided by former President Bill Clinton, Taylor Swift, Marty Stuart, Bono, producer Rick Rubin and actors Ted Danson, Mary Steenburgen, John C. Reilly and Dennis Quaid. Actress Connie Britton of ABC’s Nashville read a letter of congratulations from first lady Michelle Obama.

Clement’s induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame was announced in April 2013. Along with Kenny Rogers and Bobby Bare, he was to be officially inducted during a medallion ceremony on Oct. 27.

Edward Morris is a veteran of country music journalism. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and is a frequent contributor to CMT.com.