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A Cowboy's Adventures

Jack Clement's unexpected chapter in an unparalleled career.


Cowboy Jack Clement has finally released his second album at age 73. But he's always been busy. Before releasing his first album in 1977, he'd produced Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash at Sun Records, given George Jones his classic song "She Thinks I Still Care," and written "Miller's Cave" and "I Know One," both of which became country classics. He'd also discovered Charley Pride and produced 20 or so gold albums with him, introduced Nashville to the possibilities of 16-track recording by cutting Ray Stevens' "Everything Is Beautiful" at his new studio, and produced a pretty awful slasher film called Dear Dead Delilah. His first album was titled All I Want To Do in Life.

More than a quarter-century later, Clement found time -- between other projects -- to record his follow-up album, the recently released Guess Things Happen That Way. The title's sense of resignation in no way reflects his prolific life.

Between the last album and this one, Clement produced more gold records with Cash and Pride, along with many of Townes Van Zandt's albums, became godfather of the 1970s Outlaw movement, worked with John Prine and rock superstars U2, became Nashville's polka king, and recently began resurrecting the career of country music legend Eddy Arnold. He also had a car built from scratch in his basement and converted his attic into a recording studio with more film and video equipment than the average production house.

"We're in the fun business," he likes to say. "If we're not having fun, we're not doing our jobs."

Sun Records founder Sam Phillips could hear the fun when Clement brought Phillips one of his early productions. Clement's father was choir director at Levi Baptist Church in Whitehaven, but Clement embraced music's secular side. His country band was the house act at the Eagle's Nest on Airways, where Clement introduced an upcoming local star to the audience several times.

"Elvis would come up there with Scotty [Moore] and Bill [Black]," says Clement, with audible respect, "and it was amazing, man! The people would just hit the floor, I mean immediately."

By 1956, Clement had met Billy Lee Riley and cut a hot little song with him that captured the burgeoning spirit of the time. "Sam told me, 'I really like that record you cut.' He said, 'That's the first rock-and-roll anybody's brought me around here. Why don't you come work for me?,'" Clement recalls. Elvis was already at RCA, but Clement started working with Cash and Lewis at Sun and produced hits with Roy Orbison.

After three years at Sun, Clement became Nashville's first independent producer, a sign of his free spirit and his musical acuity. But Nashville proved too predictable, so he resettled in Beaumont, Texas, to build a recording studio and experiment with local sounds.

"I always wanted to be 'not in the mainstream' and just do some kind of regional stuff,"Clement says. "I liked a lot of Tex-Mex and Cajun music." Clement had his favorite gumbo chef translate one of his songs into Cajun French. Several years later, the lyrics were reprinted in National Geographic as an example of traditional music.

All the while, he was pondering Sun's success with Elvis: If Phillips could strike it rich with a white guy who sounded black, what about a black guy who sounded white? Enter Charley Pride. "I make records, so it didn't matter to me what color his skin was," says Clement, although he enjoyed the challenge of marketing a singing black cowboy.

Clement's new album includes old songs, new songs, and a great cover of the Rolling Stones' "No Expectations." Cash and Clement remained lifelong friends, with Clement playing on Cash's sessions right up to the last couple weeks of his life. This album includes two hits Clement wrote for Cash at Sun, "Ballad of a Teenage Queen" and "Guess Things Happen That Way." Cash guests on both songs, his voice ghostly and powerful.

My favorite track is Clement's interpretation of "Dreaming My Dreams With You." It's a classic Outlaw love ballad, a title song from a Waylon Jennings album that Clement produced. But the song is about working with Clement, written by one of his protégés, Allen Reynolds, who later discovered and produced Garth Brooks. (Brooks' first album included Clement's "I Know One," followed by a handsome royalty check for the writing and publishing.)

Reynolds wrote "Dreams" when he was trying to manage Clement's business affairs. At the time, money was flowing in from the Pride and Cash albums and flowing out to the slasher movie. Clement also had two recording studios, the Dipsy Doodle Construction Company (named after one of the many bands he's led), a publicity firm, and an art and photography studio that specialized in album covers.

Clement's ideas never stopped, and whenever Reynolds wrangled control, Clement threw another project into the works. One night, late, Reynolds fled Nashville, got as far as North Carolina, and wrote the song that begins, "I hope that I won't be that wrong anymore/I hope that I've learned this time But I'll always miss/Dreaming my dreams with you." •

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