The Rockin Johnny B

Tuesday, June 28, 2011


Cowboy Jack Clement

Singers are a pain in the ass if you want to know the truth about it. Most of 'em. Well, all of 'em: A conversation with Cowboy Jack Clement

[This guy was there at the beginning of it all: rock and roll and 'new' country sounds.  He was a major producer of great artists.  What he says in this interview needs to be preserved.  He was the best of the best in his day and his memories are very, very, very poignant.]
It hasn’t all worked out for Cowboy Jack Clement. Back in the 1970s, he lost a healthy life’s savings producing an obscure horror movie called Dear Dead Delilah. He helped launch the career of mondo-successful country artist Don Williams but failed to sign Williams to his JMI Records label, and the lack of Williams-spurred profits may have kept him from making a serious run at populating a space colony.
Otherwise, things have gone pretty well. Remarkably, actually. In the 1950s, Clement was an integral part of the Sun Records scene that introduced rock ‘n’ roll to an unsuspecting American populace. As Sam Phillips’ engineer/producer/songwriter/right-hand man, Clement was the first guy to record Jerry Lee Lewis, and he was there at Sun to work with Johnny Cash, Charley Pride, Roy Orbison and other greats.
The Sun years would, on their own, serve as a considerable legacy. But after leaving Phillips in 1959, Clement worked briefly in Nashville with Chet Atkins before heading to Beaumont, Texas, and cutting a million-seller with Dickey Lee.
After that, it was back to Nashville, where he became: the discoverer and producer of Charley Pride; the mastermind behind an early (some say the first) concept album, Bobby Bare’s Bird Named Yesterday; the early champion of Williams; a creative mentor to producer Allen Reynolds (Crystal Gayle, Garth Brooks, etc.); early-career producer of the legendary singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt; producer of fine albums by Johnny Cash and John Hartford, and of Waylon Jennings’ landmark Dreaming My Dreams, which Jennings considered his personal high-water mark; owner of a recording studio in which memorable works by Alison Krauss, Nanci Griffith, Iris DeMent and others were captured; and the answer to a thousand intriguing trivia questions, small and large. (Who wrote “Just Someone I Used To Know”? Who filmed comedy skits involving Johnny Cash that would put Saturday Night Live to shame if they were ever released? Who is the self-proclaimed “Polka King of Nashville”? Who is the only Nashvillian to have produced songs for U2?)
Throughout all of the odd, sometimes disjointed segments of his career, Clement has been known for good humor, high intelligence and a fevered aversion to stepping in line. He’s been called a weirdo and a fraud, though (as Peter Guralnick noted more than a quarter-century ago in his glorious book, Lost Highway) Clement’s resume of culture-tweaking success should preclude the latter notion.
He spends most of his time at his famed home/recording studio on Nashville’s Belmont Avenue, entertaining a steady stream of visitors and accomplices with more songs, more stories and more laughs. The place is its own kind of heaven. Clement may turn up the stereo and play country songs he produced for Louis Armstrong, Shawn Camp may drop by to chat, Eddy Arnold may stop by to work on an upcoming album, or Eugene the cat may jump on Cowboy’s desk and show off his high-fiving ability.
Those who have heard Clement sing — his crooning voice conveying equal amounts whimsy and dusky sadness — sometimes refer to him as one of Nashville’s great unknown recording artists. His long out-of-print All I Want To Do In Life, released in 1978, has been his only commercially released solo album. Now 73, he’ll seek to remove the “unknown” part of that equation with the September 14 release of Guess Things Happen That Way (yes, he wrote that classic Johnny Cash song) on Dualtone Records.
NO DEPRESSION: Back in 1958, Sun Records sent out a press release that announced “the groundwork for Jack’s predicted fame and fortune has been methodically laid.” How intent were you at that point on being a recording artist?
JACK CLEMENT: Well, at that point I wasn’t all that intent on it. I was intent on it in 1952 and ‘53, but after awhile I decided I didn’t really want to do that. It was too much of a commitment. Besides that, I noticed that every time I’d go play somewhere I’d always want to have a few cocktails, and I could see where that would lead me. I might have been a drunk! Instead of something better, for instance.
ND: Did your interest in different music hurt you as far as developing in a particular direction?
JC: I think so. I wanted to have fun and play a lot of different stuff. I’d get tired of bluegrass and want to play Hawaiian music for awhile. And I enjoyed playing for dances. I wasn’t a dancer back at that point, but I knew what got people on the floor. I’d like to do that again, have a dance band. Not just do dance numbers all the time, but throw in a samba, do a tango. “Hernando’s Hideaway”, that’s a good one. (Here, Cowboy croons, “I know a dark secluded place/A place where no one knows your face.”)
ND: Did you immediately latch onto rock ‘n’ roll when you heard it?
JC: First time I heard Elvis, I loved it. It was the morning after Dewey Phillips had first played it. Next morning, Sleepy Eyed John came on at 9 a.m. and he come on with “Blue Moon”. He played that all day, that and “That’s All Right, Mama”. By the end of the day, Elvis was a big star in Memphis.
ND: Did that feel like something monumental was going on?
JC: I knew I liked it, and I knew everybody I saw that day liked it and they were all talking about it. When I first heard it, it was kind of like, “Why didn’t I do that?” The sound wasn’t all that strange to me. I had done similar things onstage, with slapping bass and that kind of stuff. But not on the radio, not on records. To me it was like a fart without any aroma. [With that, Jack smiles and pushes a button on one of his many desktop trinkets. This one sounds off, "Fart detected! Fart detected! Evacuate!"]
ND: When you brought that first record to Sam Phillips, were you seeking to begin a working relationship?
JC: No, I hired him to master a record for me, one that I’d recorded on Billy Lee Riley. He had the lathe and the reputation as the guy in town that did that. When I went to pick the tape up, he told me he liked that record and wanted to know if I’d be interested in having it on Sun and he’d pay us a penny a record. Then he asked me what I was doing. I said I’d been going to Memphis State but now I was working at a building supply place. I said “‘Course, I don’t like it very much.” He said, “Well, maybe you ought to come to work for me.” I said “Maybe I should.” Two weeks later, I did.
So when I went to work with Sam, I brought him a finished product. I never considered myself an engineer, per se. I was one of the few early musician types that were running a board. To me it was like a musical instrument. I was an operator, not an engineer.
Sam’s whole thing was “Do something different!” as long as it didn’t cost him too much money. He knew he couldn’t compete with Nashville in a standard musical way. It was a very free atmosphere. I was in hog heaven. All of a sudden, I had echo. I wasn’t trying to get reality, you know? I was trying to make it sound better than reality. A lot of times it did.
(Shawn Camp, a friend and member of Clement’s band, sits down and poses a question.)
SHAWN CAMP: Jack, you told me one time about selling a bunch of Sun records one time. What did you say happened with that?
JC: See, we had these returns at Sun. You ship a lot of records, you get a lot of returns. And the returns would usually come into the studio, and they’d stack ‘em out there. Sometimes there’d be so many records out in the studio that it’d change the sound of the place. When we’d move ‘em out, it would sound more “live” in there, because those records would absorb sound.
Anyway, it was starting to get full one time and I said to Sam, “Why don’t we take ‘em out to the plant and sell ‘em by the pound, for scrap. They could grind ‘em up and make new records out of ‘em.” Sam said “OK.” Aw, we ground up millions of ‘em. I’m sure there was a bunch of Elvis in there. It was a lot of records. Sold ‘em by the pound. We didn’t get very much for them. That’s probably the reason a lot of them records are in short supply.
ND: When you left that situation at Sun and came to Nashville, how did the town feel to you?
JC: It seemed square.
ND: Did you regret leaving Sun?
JC: Not really. I left Sun in February of ‘59, and I was ready to go. I could have stayed. Sam fired me and Bill Justis one night when he got drunk. He wrote us letters. I’m sure he regretted it the next day. He even offered to set me up a distributor label. But Cash was gone, Jerry Lee wasn’t selling, nothing much was happening. I was thinking I could get out of town and do something else. Go to Nashville.
ND: That didn’t last too long, and you went to Beaumont soon after. Why go to Texas?
JC: I wanted to go someplace where I could have fun and cut local records. They had a sound going down there, regional kind of stuff. The variations of style, that was what made country music. That appealed to me more than trying to follow trends. Well, within six months after I got there we cut a million-seller, “Patches”, with Dickey Lee.
ND: Why leave Beaumont, then?
JC: I was getting tired of it and started wanting to go to Nashville or something. The last year I was down there, I mostly wrote songs, so when I came to Nashville I had 30 or so good ones. When I moved here, I started getting them cut pretty quick. That was good, because I didn’t have a lot of money; I think I hit town with $135 in the bank, but I never ran out.
ND: Somewhere in there, I’d heard you were going to write a book.
JC: Yeah, but I was taking a bath one night and Bobby Bare called me. At that point, I’d decided to get out of the music business and write a book. So every day I’d go into my office, smoke cigarettes and write. Just plain cigarettes, though. Anyway, I’d decided to sell my publishing company to Bill Hall, for $75,000. He had the check cut and everything. That’s when I was taking that bath, and Bobby Bare called and told me that a song I’d written called “Miller’s Cave” was going to be his next single. Well, I thought that was such a neat thing and I told Bill I’d like to get out of the sale.
ND: Bare is an important guy. Maybe more than he gets credit for sometimes.
JC: People respected him. Good songs, good voice. And he was a great ballad singer. I think people forget that.
ND: You worked with him on the Bird Named Yesterday album. [Cowboy conceived of the 1967 album, produced it, and wrote most of the songs.] Was Bird Named Yesterday the first country concept album?
JC: It was very early, but I don’t know if it was the first. “The Air Conditioner Song” from that album, that’s one of my favorites that I’ve written, ’cause it’s true. It was me when I was a kid. My mother used to drag me to Newport, Arkansas, several times a year to visit my grandparents. I’d like it once I got there. You could walk to the movie theaters, watch the trains coming in, and you had the levee to play on and slide down on cardboard. I got to experience that small town, Tom Sawyer life, so that was good.
Well, I must have been eight or nine, and “You Are My Sunshine” was a big hit at that time. This must have been about 1939, something like that. I’d be laying in my little bed with the window open, and out the window I could hear girls singing “You Are My Sunshine”. They sang other things, but they sang that several times a night. They sang it so pretty, and I envisioned them as being beautiful. But I never saw them.
That’s what “The Air Conditioning Song” is about. It’s great to be in a sealed place and not have to sweat, but you miss something when you don’t have those windows open. I mean, you can miss something good.
ND: How long was it after you moved back to Nashville before you began propping up new artists?
JC: I got here in ‘65, and it was that year when I cut Charley Pride’s first record. I met him through this guy Jack Johnson. One night we were at a place called the Professional Club. The building’s gone now, but it was a real hangout for songwriters. Tom T. Hall would be there, and Kristofferson. I took Kristofferson there the first night he came to town, and he got so caught up in it that he resigned his Army commission and moved here to be a music bum. But the Professional Club was a great place. I’d be there, go home to write a song about 8 o’clock in the evening, drive back down there and sing it to the boys, you know?
We’re in there one night and having a few cocktails, and Jack keeps telling me about Charley Pride. He talked me into going across the street to his office and listen to it. So we went over there, and listened, and it sounded pretty good. I could tell the guy could sing and that he was for real, and that he was really country. So we went back over there and had a few more cocktails and I said, “Get him in here, I’ll cut a song on him.”
Five or six days later, Charley came back from seeing his father in Mississippi, and I had a session set up at RCA Studio B and we went in and did it. I paid for it, and…well, then I had the only Charley Pride record in town. I had this office with these big speakers, and I’d get people in there and play Charley’s record. Loud, man. Like, really loud. I’d play that record and then I’d show ‘em his picture. That was fun.
ND: Was he nervous going into those first sessions?
JC: He was born nervous. But somehow nervousness made him go, and he liked to have an audience in the control room. That first session, word had got out that Cowboy was going to produce a black guy. So there were a bunch of people in the control room, including Connie B. Gay, who later told Chet about Charley and helped get him a record deal. So I found out then that Charley liked having an audience. After that, his sessions were more open than normally my sessions would be.
ND: That’s one of your rules of recording, as posted in Johnny Cash’s cabin out in Hendersonville: “Don’t bring or invite anyone.”
JC: Well, rules were made to be broken.
ND: Plenty of people showed up to watch the Dreamin’ My Dreams sessions that you produced on Waylon Jennings. I’ve heard it could be a real party in there, and that you and Waylon didn’t always get along famously during the recording.
JC: There was one time I remember that Jessi [Colter] was there, and by then I’m married to her sister, and some other people were in the control room, and I wanted them out. I was being sort of dramatic. Waylon’s looking through the glass, seeing me moving around, and he thinks I’m in there having a party or something. That’s when I got to thinking more and more about not having a control room window. Something about you can see through a wall, but you can’t hear: Fakes people out.
Waylon was on a lot of cocaine during that time. That had a lot to do with it. But we didn’t argue all the time. We had some great times. We had some arguments about he thought he was spending too much money on a piano player, Charles Cochran. He thought he was paying too much for a piano player who didn’t play all that much. Fact is, Charles was doing some very creative laying out on some things.
It worked out, though. Dreaming My Dreams is one of the albums I’m most proud of. Maybe the one I’m proudest of, I don’t know.
ND: You sometimes set yourself up almost as a foil to the artist.
JC: You got to remember, most singers are insecure. We all know that, right? And a lot of ‘em are not too bright. Singers are a pain in the ass if you want to know the truth about it. Most of ‘em. Well, all of ‘em. I mean, I had my ideas about things, songs and phrasing and so on, and I was right a lot of the time. When I first started working with Charley, I had [a lot] to say about what was going to be the songs. ‘Course we’d argue, but I could win out. And after we’d had about three big ones in a row, he said “Why do you have to always be right?” And he was serious.
ND: When the Pride stuff started hitting, were you thinking it was empire-building time? Did you want to parlay that into something huge?
JC: I was always spending more money than I took in. So, sure, I was always empire-building. I just wanted to build studios and make movies and start record labels. You know, little stuff.
ND: By that time you were almost a polarizing figure in Nashville. People either believed fully in you or thought you were a fraud or a crazy guy.
JC: I was always aware that certain people thought I was loony. Not loony, but…yeah, wild and woolly, and not too respectful of the powers that be.
ND: You were quoted when your first record came out as saying it was going to be the next big thing, that it was going to revolutionize country music. Did you really believe that?
JC: I don’t know if I believed it after I finished the record. I believed it along the way to that, though.
ND: What happened?
JC: First of all, it took me too long: It took two and a half years to do it. I was going around saying, “Someone can cut a hit record in three minutes, therefore I can cut a hit album in 30.” Then it took me more than two years.
ND: What took so long?
JC: I was really wanting to do it live to start with. So I formed a band: Cowboy’s Ragtime Band. I had a good budget for back then, so I hired the band to come here every day for a couple of months and rehearse in the living room. I hired one of the few rock ‘n’ roll bands in town, Peace And Quiet. I jammed with ‘em one day at Jack’s Tracks and I liked them. Next thing, I hired Jim Rooney to play upside-down, left-handed guitar. Then we decided we needed a horn or two. So pretty soon I had a seven-or-eight-piece band with the three horns, and we’d do “Alabama Jubilee”, “Clarinet Polka”, “Beer Barrel Polka”, “Steel Guitar Rag” and “I Saw The Light”. After doing this for a month in the living room, we started learning other stuff.
We started playing at George Jones’ Possum Holler on Tuesday and Thursday nights, and we were really kicking. It was like a circus, really. It was a really neat show. The theme song was “Mickey Mouse”. I’d make my entrance to that one: “Who’s the leader of the club” and all that. We did that once a week for several months, and then it snowed and we suspended it for a week, and the next week it snowed. Kept snowing. A month later, it had drifted. We were never able to get it back together. One of the horn players moved to Alabama to sell carpets or something.
ND: So the group got messed up and that’s what took so long?
JC: That wasn’t all of it. I went in the studio one day and we managed to cut three keeper tracks. Well, it was about a year before we cut any more. I went through this whole thing of looking for a bass player. That’s when little Rachel Peer showed up, who married John Prine later. I hired her to come around here every morning and kind of get me going. I was sort of lagging at that point.
Rachel really is the one that sparked me to finally finish the record, ’cause I couldn’t get started. I was in the doldrums, and it’d been months since I’d cut a keeper track. But then she came along, and she was sweet and she was cute and I liked her bass playing and I liked her singing and her attitude. She showed up every day at 9 o’clock. We’d talk awhile, smoke a joint and pick awhile, and then she’d go home. That’s when the record started coming together.
ND: Were you disappointed when it came out and didn’t sell a ton?
JC: Naw, I don’t remember it being any huge letdown. It took a few months before you realized you ain’t gonna outdo Elvis or something, and by that time I was off into something else.
ND: By the 1980s, you’d gone from being a top-line producer to being a mentoring, one-step-removed figure. Were you happy in this new role as an “influence?”
JC: I thought it was cute (laughs). I don’t remember the ’80s very much. I remember I kind of didn’t like a lot of the music happening in the ’80s, and in the ’90s especially. I just went my way here and people’d come in and record. I kept the studio working and furnished some engineers. I sort of holed up in this house and let the rest of the world either go by or drop in.
ND: So what caused you to really want to work at music again?
JC: I guess it took awhile before I found the people I wanted to hook up with, people that would inspire me to want to go to the trouble to go out and book shows and stuff. People like Shawn Camp and Billy Burnette. Once I did that, we played some shows at Douglas Corner and at the Country Music Hall of Fame. Then Dualtone started saying they’d like to do an album with me. So, OK, I’ll do you an album. And here you are. And here it is.
ND: Has having close friends die encouraged you to step up your pace?
JC: No, I think it was coincidental. To some extent it may have prompted me, since I’m one of the last of the breed, or whatever you want to call it. I’ve always thought if I really wanted to I could cut a hit record. Well, I want to now. Go on the road and chase girls. Get me a bus. Go to Hollywood and find Salma Hayek.
ND: You seem proud of this album.
JC: I’m pretty happy with it. There’s some good stuff on it, and I think it’s entertaining. I tried to keep it where when you hear it you can see things. You can visualize circuses and drinking carrot juice, things like that.
ND: It’s been so long since you made a record, I would think you’d just go with new material. Why did you decide to bring older songs onto this album?
JC: I thought it would be commercial. I thought people would want to hear it. Both songs I’m doing with Cash are different from the way he did them. “Guess Things Happen That Way”, my inspiration was “Memories Are Made of This” by Dean Martin. A calypso beat. Cash did it a totally different way, which was great. But the way we’re doing it now is closer to the way I wrote it. About a year ago, we got him to come in and do that, and he fell right into it.
Cash used to come over here a lot. He used to have a key to the place. Sometimes at night you’d hear someone clomping around upstairs. What’s that? Oh, that’s just Johnny Cash, up there pacing around. He’d pace around awhile and then he’d split.
ND: Do you think about what you’ve meant to this town and this music?
JC: Not much. I appreciate the attention and stuff. But it’s not my driving thing, you know.
ND: But things would have been different if you hadn’t come around. Surely you see that.
JC: Oh yeah. I think so. There might not have been a Charley Pride, for one thing.
ND: Would rock ‘n’ roll have happened in the same way?
JC: Well, there might not have been a Jerry Lee Lewis. He’d auditioned for people in Nashville and other places, and nobody saw it. I don’t know how they couldn’t see it. That baffled me. I saw it the first time I heard it.
ND: You’re a fine evaluator of singers. Do you like your own voice?
JC: When I’m in pretty good shape I do. I smoke too much and everything else, but most of the time on this album it’s in good shape. But sometimes it mystifies me a little bit that people actually like my voice. Why would they? I’d like to be able to sing like Merle Haggard. [Folk singer] Gove Scrivenor is a guy with a beautiful voice. And that kid from Texas, Gene Watson. Now there’s a guy with a beautiful voice. If I had my druthers I’d sound like a combination of all three of them guys, but with my phrasing. I do like my phrasing pretty well.
ND: In Peter Guralnick’s chapter about you in Lost Highway: Journeys And Arrivals Of American Musicians, you’re depicted as someone who sometimes didn’t get much accomplished amidst all the hubbub of your home and studio. Was there truth to that?
JC: One time, I got into this game of asking myself in a really tough situation, “What would the smartest man in the world do in a case like this?” The answer would come back, “Nothing.” He’d do nothing. He’d wait ‘em out, you know? I still do that. What’s 20, 30 years to me? I’ve always avoided it when people try to get me in a hurry about things.
ND: You waited on the space thing.
JC: Well now, the idea wasn’t that far-fetched. At one point it looked like we might really put this record label together and everything. If I hadn’t forgot to sign a certain guy [Don Williams] to a contract we might have done it. And we could have amassed $100 million or something, and if you can amass $100 million maybe you could get a billion.
I always figured it would take at least a billion dollars to start any kind of meaningful space program. So you know, I did have it in my mind that we might could get enough shit going and actually get a billion dollars, invent an anti-gravity device and start a space program. I was telling people then it was a 30-year program. Still got a couple years left. But hell, I’m down to my last million right now. But I’m about ready to stop waiting on everything. I’m going to get right on my next album. I like to put one out every quarter-century.

[If you love music and history, this is a great interview.  I hope y'all enjoy it.  JB]

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