“If you never chase fashion, you’ll never go out of style,” said author Peter Guralnick as he described Cowboy
Jack Clement, a legendary producer, songwriter and creative oddball for more than 60 years.
Indeed, that comment
kicked off a quirky celebration befitting of Clement’s one-of-a-kind nature at Nashville’s War Memorial Auditorium Wednesday
night (Jan. 30). Included in the night were an eclectic mix of artists, actors and even politicians.
The show, Honoring
a Legend: A Tribute to Cowboy Jack Clement, was organized by Matt Urmy, musician and CEO of Artist Growth, to benefit the
Music Health Alliance. Proceeds will be donated to launch the new Cowboy Jack Clement Fund to help curb the cost of medical
bills incurred by musicians who are not covered by insurance.
The cause is one that’s close to Clement’s heart and
long career. And it’s a career whose importance is difficult to convey, such is its wide-reaching influence.
transplant, Clement may be best known as the original recording engineer at Sun Studios in Memphis, Tenn., the workshop that
turned out greats like Elvis Presley and Johnny
Cash. He also wrote many important hits like Cash’s “Ballad of a Teenage Queen” and Porter
Wagoner and Dolly Parton‘s “Just Someone I Used to Know” and discovered
and helped break Charley Pride at a time when segregation was still
the unspoken law of the land.
A member of the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, but not yet the Country Music Hall of Fame
or Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Clement discovered Jerry Lee Lewis,
revitalized Cash’s career, inspired Waylon Jennings and mentored
countless producers and songwriters. He had a knack for coaxing greatness out of his artists and challenged the status quo
of the music business.
Those are accomplishments deserving of praise, but Thursday night was focused on the friendship,
compassion and originality Clement fostered in musicians of all stripes.
His home in Nashville, known as the Cowboy
Arms Hotel and Recording Spa, was always open to an artist in need. Now he would be honored by some of those same folks, many
of whom have gone on to lead successful careers.
But first, he had to make his entrance, and for the man known as
the Pied Piper of Nashville, nothing less than a marching polka band would do.
With the War Memorial’s grand ballroom
floor turned into a gala dining hall, the 81-year-old danced his way to his seat in the center of the room, followed by the
band and sat down in a large arm chair as the audience stood and applauded.
Admirers were then treated to three hours
of stories from Clement’s colorful life, video spots from admirers and clips from some of Clement’s attempts to film wacky
TV specials. Most were never finished, but all were endlessly entertaining, especially the cartoon appearances by William
Some of the night’s distinguished
speakers included producer and friend Allen Reynolds, who recalled Clement’s fertile imagination in the years after his split
from Sam Phillips and Sun Records. Reynolds would take what he learned from Clement in Beaumont, Texas, and eventually make
his own mark as Garth Brooks‘ producer.
Jim Rooney, producer,
guitarist, friend and eyewitness to the happenings at the Cowboy Arms Hotel and Recording Spa, spoke about Clement’s constant
reminders to “believe in magic” and described his eccentric lifestyle.
Allison Clement read a poem dedicated to her
father, and the Cowboy was even awarded with the honorary title of Ambassador of Goodwill for the state of Tennessee.
shout outs came from former President Bill Clinton, Taylor Swift, Marty Stuart, U2’s Bono, producer Rick Rubin and actors Ted Danson, Mary
Steenburgen, John C. Reilly and Dennis Quaid, while actress Connie Britton of ABC’s Nashville read a letter of congratulations
from first lady Michelle Obama.
All professed their love and admiration, and the variety of Clement’s friends and connections
alone was staggering.
As for the music, the guest list was beyond impressive.
Camp and Billy Burnette kicked things off with a cover of Billy Lee Riley’s “Red Hot,” followed by Prine singing “Ballad
of a Teenage Queen.” Del McCoury, Tim
O’Brien and Sam Bush represented Clement’s bluegrass pals, doing “Miller’s
Cave” and “Dirty Old Egg Sucking Dog.”
Pride took a moment to express his profound thanks to the man who first believed
in him and proceeded to sing two of his biggest hits, “Just Between You and Me,” which was written by Clement, and “Kiss an
Angel Good Morning.”
Next up was Clement’s old friend Dickey Lee doing “She Thinks I Still Care,” followed by Vince
Gill performing a longing rendition of “Does My Ring Hurt Your Finger.”
Young artists also showed their respect.
Amos Lee delivered an honest feeling “I Know One,” about a fool willing to wait for his love to come around. Dan Auerbach
of the Black Keys and Nashville local Nikki Lane harmonized beautifully on “Someone I Used to Know,” and Jacob Dylan of the
Wallflowers took the stage for “Waymore’s Blues.”
Singer-songwriter Marshall Chapman said after her first meeting with
Clement in the ’70s, she’s never been quite right. She proceeded to get the audience to sing along on “Let’s All Help the
Cowboys (Sing the Blues).”
Kristofferson praised the honored guest, saying Clement was one of the first people
he met while on leave from the Army in the ’60s. That meeting inspired him to resign his commission and move to Nashville
full time, which he said delighted Clement but not Kristofferson’s mother.
“I owe every good thing that ever happened
in my life to Jack,” said the silver-haired legend before jumping in to “Big River.”
Currently battling cancer, Clement shakily made his way to center stage and seated himself on
a barstool, soaking up the warm applause with a smile.
“Now what?” he joked as the crowd took their seats.
yelled someone in the audience, using one of Clement’s signature lines.
He repeated the motto and started up the band
for an emotional rendition of “When I Dream.” With a surprisingly strong voice, he kept singing for three more songs, “Good
Hearted Woman,” “Gone Girl” and “Brazil.”
As he stood and gave a wave, the self-made Cowboy was immediately surrounded
and embraced with hugs.