Knowing that I am in the music business, an air-conditioning service technician once asked me if I knew Cowboy Jack Clement, one of Nashville’s great music industry personalities. I said, “No, but I see him around town, now and again.” Jeff, the service tech, then told me of his encounter with Cowboy Jack, who died August 8, 2013.
Jeff said he was in the Cowboy Arms Hotel and Recording Spa, the name Clement called his illustrious studio, discussing what needed to be done to repair Cowboy Jack’s AC unit. In the middle of their conversation, Cowboy Jack reached behind his desk, grabbed a black top hat and a trombone, and then proceeded to march down the hallway as if leading seventy-five other trombonists in the big parade, leaving Jeff sitting stunned in the office. That left a lasting impression on Jeff, as the story has on me.
With the death of Cowboy Jack Clement, the world lost a character, not to mention some of its character. In the late 1980s, I saw Johnny Cash at a benefit concert with Waylon Jennings and Steve Earle. In the course of the show, Cash mentioned that actor Rod Steiger was his guest that week and wanted to see some of Nashville’s “local color.” Cash said, “I just introduced him to Cowboy Jack, and that did the trick.”
Cash and Clement had a long history together, going back to Sun Records in Memphis in the 1950s. Clement was not only a producer there, but also the writer of the early Cash hits, Ballad of a Teenage Queen and Guess Things Happen That Way. The two worked together off and on throughout the Man in Black’s life.
Clement is credited with introducing the world to a black country singer from Mississippi named Charley Pride in the 1960s. Not since harmonica wizard Deford Bailey was on the Grand Ole Opry decades before had a person of color held any prominence in country music. The story goes that Clement cleverly began releasing Pride’s records featuring his decidedly country voice without including a photo that would reveal his race. It was feared that then “country & western” radio programmers might not trust their white audiences to embrace Pride during the civil-rights era. Cowboy Jack’s plan worked and eventually Pride was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame (as was Clement) and joined the Grand Ole Opry as an official member.
Beyond referring to his studio as the Cowboy Arms Hotel and Recording Spa, Clement
figuratively opened his arms to unusual and interesting musicians. That was part of his charm, part of his legend. Some of my favorite albums were recorded at the studio and/or produced by Cowboy Jack. That eclectic array of artists included John Hartford, Louis Armstrong and Nanci Griffith.
Ride ‘em Cowboy
Now, Cowboy Jack is in the proverbial “Hillbilly Heaven,” probably rocking the boat of some angelic choir by marching through their performance wearing a top hat and blowing a trombone.
It is my hope that Cowboy Jack’s spirit of making music that is real, human and unpredictable will serve somehow to ride herd on open-minded artists, producers and record companies. When it comes to creativity we, as musicians and humans, could all use a little more Jack.
Text and photos copyright 2013 by Les Kerr.