Cowboy Jack Clement

Shakespeare's Seventh Age of Man... and counting
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“Last scene of all/That ends this strange eventful history/Is second childishness and mere oblivion/Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”

Obviously, Shakespeare never met Cowboy Jack Clement.

At 80 years, Jack is the walking, talking, living cliché of not getting older but getting better. Just recently I have witnessed fine performances by an 80 year-old Jack Clement at Joe’s Pub on Friday night and an aural/visual experience with a 78 year-old Yoko Ono at The Stone on Saturday. I didn’t even consider their age while watching them do what they do best – entertain while opening and expanding minds. Thank God we have them to inspire and create, not just sit on their laurels or fade into Shakespeare. Over the course of his half-century career Jack discovered and developed the careers of Charley Pride and Don Williams, wrote songs covered by everyone from George Jones to Johnny Cash to Nanci Griffith.

My introduction to the Cowboy who shuns hats and horses was while working as a producer for a documentary about Sun Records. I was the go-between for the film company and the reluctant artists suspicious of anyone from NY or LA wanting to tell their story. They had all been through this several times before. Due to my work with Sonny Burgess, Scotty Moore, D. J. Fontana and Paul Burlison, I had the ability to get them proper pay and, for Sam Phillips, a major place in the story just where he belonged. When you watch the film Good Rockin’ Tonight: The Legacy of Sun Records (PBS American Masters/Image Entertainment), you will hear Sam bloviate almost to the extreme but each time he goes too close to the edge, there is Cowboy Jack to reel him in.

A little recent history – Jack wrote a song for Johnny Cash, “I Guess Things Happen That Way,” recorded early in his career that was the 10 billionth downloaded song from the Internet. Some guy from upstate NY won the prizes but Jack has the credit. A West Point graduate, honor guard for Queen Elizabeth, the man who turned on the tape machine to record the real Million Dollar Quartet and the author of “Dirty Old Egg-Sucking Dog.” Jack is the proud author of three songs on Cash’s 20 million seller, Live At San Quentin.

Talking to the Cowboy is an ethereal experience. His mind is always working and thinking of projects that may or not be produced. Jack does not consider age or aging it is just about creating. Like Yoko, Jack recreates himself for each generation but always stays true to himself. Jack was invited to New York to be a special guest for the curtain call of the Broadway play, The Million Dollar Quartet which is a loose, (very loose), recreation of the evening when Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee and Carl Perkins convened at Sun for a gospel jam session that has been bootlegged many times and finally released for fans who wanted to hear these people being themselves and not their images. Jack was the engineer who recorded the once in a lifetime session at Memphis Recording Studio, a/k/a Sun Studio. Some thirty-odd years later, Jack brought U2 to the studio to records some tracks from their Rattle and Hum CD and film. Jack bonded with the band so much that, on a personal trip around the south, Bono and Adam stayed several days with Jack partaking in all sorts of fun and philosophizing. Jack has the film to prove it. In fact, hop on Netflix and get the great film of Jack’s interesting life, Shakespeare Was A George Jones Fan. You will witness the U2 guys, John Prine and Jack’s best friend for life, Johnny Cash having the time of their lives with the Cowboy. Country music purists may find parts of the film over the top, (Johnny and Jack drunk and stoned at the grave of A. P. Carter is a good example).

I had some unfinished business with Jack and his trip to NYC was a perfect opportunity to speak to him about how we could get our money back for a couple of old recording projects. We co-own some live recordings and studio demos that represent the last of the great Sun Records artists that are not the top four. During the filming of the PBS project, we recorded and filmed a one night only performance featuring Sonny Burgess, Billy Lee Riley, Barbra Pittman, J. M. Van Eaton, Ace Cannon and Cowboy himself, who preferred to perform alone with his acoustic guitar, in a private club in Swifton, AR. Bob King, the proprietor for over fifty years, had left the tiles on the floor where Elvis stood in 1955 intact and undisturbed. Other musicians stood there over the years but Bob knew it was a special space in time and made sure we got that on film.

I can’t remember if it was before or after the live performance but I remember how Jack really enjoyed himself during the filming of the entire documentary and it is evident when you watch it. We recorded three songs that were supposed to be a Billy Lee Riley/Sonny Burgess duo record. Sonny didn’t make it to the sessions due to a sudden illness but was there in spirit. I think the illness was brought on by the half-century rivalry between the two. I struggled to get special guests on the session and wrangled Ben Folds during the last legs of the Ben Folds Five, Bill Lloyd, The Delevantes and a couple of the Jordanaires but Jack trumped us all by making one phone call to Waylon Jennings.

Waylon came to Jack’s home studio and stayed for hours regaling us with stories about Buddy Holly, Elvis, Johnny Cash and the real outlaws of country music. He couldn’t physically make it up the stairs to Jack’s recording studio so Jack had the brilliant idea of running mic cables downstairs to his office. We recorded the vocals there along with Jack’s trained cat, Eugene. Sadly, this was just weeks before Waylon lost a leg to diabetes and shortly thereafter passed away. I know he went out with passion for his life and work. Like the old saying, “who can ask for anything more?”

No one had a clue this would be Waylon’s last recording session and fittingly he is the prominent voice for “Walk, Talk & Sing,” a gospel-styled song that Billy Lee had gelling for years. This was his moment to shine and shine he did. Ben Folds played a nearly perfect piano roll that carried the song along and the lead and background vocals are downright jubilant. Eleven years on it sounds fresh with every listen. With luck, Jack and I will get it out for the rest of the world along with the magic tapes from the live show in Swifton, AR.

Just as Jack had done for the original Million Dollar Quartet, I kept a tape machine going for the rehearsals the night before the show and I still love to hear the crosstalk by the stellar musicians arguing over keys and tempos before sliding into a steady rock and blues roll. It was like being at a jam session at Memphis Recording Studio with Mr. Phillips at the helm.

Cowboy Jack’s Friday night show at Joe’s Pub was a lesson in music history. He played the songs he wrote for Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee as well as songs he loved to play for himself like the Samba, “Brazil.” Did I mention that Jack was also a graduate and instructor for Arthur Murray? Laura Cantrell and her wonderful band backed the Cowboy like they had played together for years but they only met for a rehearsal that afternoon.

A good time was had by all.

No, a great time was had by all.