Clement’s name may not be quite of the household variety, but this fun-loving, free-spirited musical genius was a hugely influential force across country, folk and rock for more than half a century.
Elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame earlier this year (but not yet officially ‘inducted’–that will happen later this year), Clement was nominated in the “non-performer” category–even though he has at various times in his career been a performer, including releasing a pair of solo albums. He is, though, best known as a studio engineer (at Sun Records in the 1950s), producer (for Waylon Jennings, Charley Pride, Don Williams), and songwriter. His best-known songs include “Ballad of a Teenage Queen” and “Guess Things Happen That Way,” both early hits for Johnny Cash; “Just Someone I Used to Know” for Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner; “Gone Girl” for the Glaser Brothers; and “Just Between You and Me” for Pride.
A native of Memphis, Clement got his early start at that city’s famous label Sun Records alongside Sam Phillips. There he worked with and helped shape the sound and songs of such legends as Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis. He later settled in Nashville and worked with Chet Atkins at RCA. He convinced Chet to sign Charley Pride, and went on to produce or coproduce Pride’s first 13 RCA albums.
Clement also produced the very first album by legendary Texas singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt, as well as the concept album A Bird Named Yesterday for fellow Country Music Hall of Fame 2013 inductee Bobby Bare.
He also produced Waylon’s 1975 masterpiece Dreaming My Dreams, considered by many to be the ‘outlaw’ singer’s best.
“The outlaws were folks I could relate to,” Clement said in a late-’90s interview published in The Rough Guide to Country Music. To him, they were “the kind of musicians who could pick up the tempo if the singer took it that way. I guess that’s an attitude that comes from rock. If Jerry Lee started in a bit faster, you best believe the drummer would get on up there.”
“Today,” continued Clement, “few people play music, the music plays with them. Everybody’ today is trying to get it perfect with click tracks and computers. Music ain’t supposed to be perfect, ’cause life ain’t. I guess that’s the outlaw attitude.”
In the ’80s Clement produced some tracks for U2′s Rattle & Hum. His legacy also includes mentoring others, including producer Allen Reynolds, who worked with Clement on Waylon’s Dreaming My Dreams and would later go on to produce records with stars like Crystal Gayle and Garth Brooks.
Clement was also the subject of a kooky, fun-filled documentary called Shakespeare was a Big George Jones Fan: Cowboy Jack Clement’s Home Movies.
In early 2013, Clement was the subject of a tribute concert in Nashville that featured artists such as Pride, Kris Kristofferson, Emmylou Harris, John Prine, Vince Gill, and the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach. And this past April he appeared at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville for a ceremony announcing his coming induction alongside Bare and Kenny Rogers.
Rest in peace, Cowboy. The music world will go on, but it won’t be the same.
– Kurt Wolff, Radio.com