By Katherine Cole
Singer, songwriter, producer and recently elected Country Music Hall of Fame member Cowboy Jack Clement has passed away at the age of 82 after a long battle with liver cancer.
I met Cowboy Jack twice, both times in Nashville. The first time was a social occasion, the second was a formal interview. Or as formal as interview as you could get him to sit for — in other words, not very. I think we were supposed to be talking about Cowboy Jack’s then new CD “Guess Things Happen That Way.” But keeping him on subject was a lost cause. For one thing, he picked the place: a downtown Nashville bar at 4 in the afternoon. And another—I couldn’t get a word in. I asked one question, and when he finished answering it, two hours had passed, my recorder was out of batteries. But it didn’t matter that I never got to ask Cowboy Jack (never just Jack, always Cowboy Jack) a second question, he’d told me enough stories to fill up five programs and then some.
He was the guy who made Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” into the song we know and love today. Cash wanted something different on that track—horns. So he called in Cowboy Jack to arrange and produced what turned into a huge hit—and the first with mariachi horns in country music. Can you imagine this song without them?
Cowboy Jack was full of stories—most of them true.
He loved talking about the time he spent living in Washington, DC while he was serving in the US Marine Corps. He had enlisted after graduating from high school and served as a member of the prestigious Marine Corps Drill Team, which allowed him to take part in many official U. S. Government ceremonies, including the ones surrounding the visit to Washington by Princess Elizabeth (now Queen Elizabeth II) in 1951. When I seemed interested in that part of his military life, Cowboy Jack said he’d send some photos of him with the Queen. Never expecting him to actually follow through, you can imagine my surprise when I received this photo in the mail a few weeks later!
It was here in Washington that Cowboy Jack first started writing songs. He told me that the long hours spent sitting at the guard station in front of his barracks or while marching in parades were perfect for letting thoughts drift (!) and letting lyrics form. He spent his off duty hours in the clubs around DC, soaking up the local sounds and once out of the service started touring with Buzz Busby in one of DC’s early bluegrass bands. Soon, he was on the road as a touring musician and pitching his songs to anyone who’d listen to them.
His next stop was Memphis, where he hooked up with Sam Phillips and Sun Records, producing hit after hit with Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and others. He and Phillips had a falling out, which led Clement to take a job as a songwriter and producer with Chet Atkins in Nashville. Hopping around the country, he continued to write & produce hit songs and also discover new talent, including country legend Charley Pride. Now a Hall of Fame member, Pride (and Clement, who wrote and produced some of his hits) broke the color barrier in Nashville.
But there was more to Cowboy Jack Clement than country music—he also produced tracks on U2 and Louis Armstrong discs. Along with the “usual suspects,” his songs have been recorded by Cliff Richard, Ray Charles, Tom Jones, and Foghat. He was one of the first to pioneer the idea of the “home studio,” produced a low-budget horror film, and served as a mentor to a generation of singers and songwriters.
In the few hours since his passing, there have already been a number of fine appreciations of Cowboy Jack Clement online. Peter Cooper’s in the Nashville Tennessean is a fine place to start if you want to learn more about the legendary producer, songwriter and character. And here’s Cowboy Jack performing “It’ll Be Me” on Music City Roots in Nashville in 2010.