Even if you don’t know his name, you know his music. He’s had a hand in five decades of classic American songs and every Nashville legend has a story about him. “Cowboy” Jack Clement was simultaneously behind the scenes and in the center of it all. As a producer, songwriter, hillbilly sage and friend and confidant to Music City movers and shakers, Cowboy Jack helped shape the course of country music.
The Cowboy Rides into Town
Jack Clement was born in Memphis, Tenn. in 1931. He grew up listening to a blend of rockabilly and cowboy music. It was the Blues City that kicked off Clement’s career in music when he started working with Sam Phillips at Sun Studios.
To explain Clement’s impact, it might be easier to think about what we’d be missing if it weren’t for his vision. Without Cowboy Jack, we wouldn’t have the iconic mariachi horns on Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire.” If it wasn’t for his ear for talent, Clement might have turned away a young man named Jerry Lee Lewis when he showed up at Sun Studios while Sam Phillips was out of town. Instead, Clement was the first to record the man who became known as The Killer.
He was also a fierce supporter of then-newcomer Charley Pride, encouraging Chet Atkins to sign him to RCA. He went on to co-produce 12 of Pride’s albums.
Clement is widely recognized as a treasured songwriter, having written Cash’s “Ballad Of A Teenage Queen,” Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner’s “Just Someone I Used To Know” and a ditty that has to be in the top tier in the history of country song titles, “Flushed From the Bathroom Of Your Heart.”
The Cowboy Arms Hotel and Recording Spa
Clement’s home at 3405 Belmont Blvd., lovingly known as the Cowboy Arms Hotel and Recording Spa, was the chosen hangout for country artists and songwriters such as Guy Clark, Johnny Cash and John Prine.
The documentary Shakespeare Was A Big George Jones Fan, pieced together from Clement’s home movies, documents the times Clement shared with his friends. His friends knew him as a jokester, and one of his closest pals called him “the maestro, the ringleader of tomfoolery.” The following clip from the film shows him and Cash showing off their lesser-seen humorous sides.
It wasn’t just country artists who flocked to Cowboy Jack. In 1988, Clement signed on to produce U2’s Rattle and Hum, despite the fact that he had never heard of the band.
A veritable jack-of-all-trades, Clement was also recognized as quite the crooner. He teamed up with Pam Tillis to record his song “Let’s All Help the Cowboys Sing the Blues,” originally recorded by Waylon Jennings.
Clement had a lifelong front row seat to countless unforgettable performances, such as Guy Clark performing “Magnolia Wind” in Cowboy Jack’s backyard. It really doesn’t get any better than this.
However, not everything Clement touched turned to gold. In 1975, he produced the failed horror film Dear Dead Delilah. Despite spending his entire life savings funding the project, the movie was a flop. Then again, like Clement himself, the movie continues to have a cult following. Cowboy Jack always knew how to bounce back.
The Cowboy Rides Away
Clement died of liver cancer on Aug. 8, 2013. Fittingly, Music City gave him one hell of a send-off. A tribute concert was held at the Nashville War Memorial Auditorium, featuring performances by Kris Kristofferson, T Bone Burnett, Charley Pride and John Prine.