COWBOY JACK CLEMENT
CASH, PRIDE, SUN and POLKA
by Michael Buffalo Smith
Cowboy Jack Clement is a true Nashville legend if ever there was one. From his days working at Sun Studios, to writing hit songs for Johnny Cash, producing Waylon Jennings and Charley Pride, Cowboy Jack has always kept it real, and eclectic. We spoke with Jack from his home in Nashville.
How did you first come to work with Sam Philips and Sun Records?
I had been in the Marine Corps, been to college, and played in clubs and done Boston Jamboree and had gone back to Memphis and started working in this building supply place. Along the way I had begun getting interested in producing and doing the other side of the control room window... and we were going to start a record company. I had built a studio in a friend’s garage. We wound up cutting a record, and I had not finished the studio in such a way that we could do a master. We went down and rented a radio studio in Memphis, WMPS and did a couple of track sides with Billy Lee Riley and we were going to get it pressed.
At that time Sam Phillips was the guy that did mastering in town. I had Wednesday off and I took it to him one day and went back the next week to pick it up and he was sitting up front. I don’t think that there was anybody there but him at that time. He took me into the back of the studio and said that he really liked that record. He said in fact that was some of the first rock and roll anyone had brought him. He wanted to put it on Sun Records and pay us a penny a record. I told him that I would talk it over and let him know. He asked me what I had been doing and I told him that I had been going to Memphis State and was now working at the Hardware Department in Clark and Fay. He wanted me to come to work with him. I told him that might be a good idea.Then exactly two weeks later on June 15th, I went to work for him, and boy was I having fun. The first thing I wanted to know was how did you get that echo. I was there for close to three years.
One thing I wanted to ask you about was the fact that I read somewhere you were one of the first people to record Jerry Lee Lewis... is that correct?
Oh, yes that’s true.
What did you think about him the first time you met him?
I was at the studio one day piddling around and Sally Wilburn, who worked the front office came back into the studio and said,"there was a guy here that says he played the piano like Chet Atkins." I asked her to bring him back. He came in and sat down and played "Wildwood Flower" on a little piano, and he sounded like Chet Atkins playing the piano. I was amused and entertained, but I thought, what are you going to do with it. I asked him if he sang. He said yes, and sang a couple of George Jones songs, "Seasons of My Heart," and "Window Up Above."
I loved his sound and his singing with piano. I taped some of it and started playing it for everyone that came in. I played it for Sam and he loved it. He almost chewed me out and said I might have let that get away. I didn’t remember anyone giving me the power to sign people up. (Laughs) I was about to give him a call and then he showed up one day on a Monday in October. So anyway, before he left the first time I told him that we were not doing too much country at the time but to find some rock n’ roll. He had written a song called Into "The Road," which was pretty good, but he also had a song written by Gene Autry, it was a love song and a waltz, called "Your The Only Star In My Blue Heaven," and he rocked it and I loved it. I said okay, come on in on Thursday, and I will have some players and we will cut some tapes.
Sam was on the road driving to Nashville at that time to the convention, so anyway we cut those two songs and were about to quit. I asked him if he knew "Crazy Arms," and he said yes, a little of it, and at that time that song had already peaked and had been a big hit by Ray Price for months and months and then by the Andrew Sisters. But we cut it anyway and when we cut it, Billy Riley who had been playing bass that day I think was in the bathroom and Roland was playing guitar and he was up front someplace. So the only instruments on that song were piano and drums. That was his first record, "Crazy Arms" and when Sam came in on Monday I played it for him and he stopped it before it ever got to the voice, he said that he could sell that. As if to say that we had finally done something he liked around here.
It was the sound of the piano because it was a Spinet piano with thumb tacks in the hammers and I found that if miked it from the bottom rather than the top that it took the ping out of it. That was actually the sound of "Crazy Arms" and "Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On." By the time we got to "Great Balls of Fire" we had gone out and gotten a baby grand piano. That was the sound. Before we ever got to the singin’ part he reached over and stopped the machine and said he could sell it and then when he heard the voice and totally flipped. He cut an acetate right there in the control room and took it to Dewey Phillips that night and he played it on the air and by Thursday we had records in the stores, at least in Memphis. That was back when the record business was fun. This was a single, not an album.
I guess it was at Sun that you first met Johnny Cash. I grew up idolizing him. Could you give us some insight into him as an artist and as a man?
Artist-wise he was my favorite. Man - wise, he is just as good a friend as I ever had. I miss him very much and think about him everyday. I loved the man. Working with him was great. We clicked to start with and he had this sense of humor and I did as well, he liked to hear songs and so did I. When I first started working around there he was doing things that he had written but then I started playing some things that I had written and he was very receptive to songs and liked to hear them. Sometimes I would play him something, not really thinking he would want to record it but just because I felt he might enjoy it. Like "Ballad of Teenage Queen," I had recorded that myself and it had the vocal group on it and everything. I played it to him and just wanted to see if he liked it. He not only liked it but wanted to record it. It was a hit and Sam Philips hated it. One time he told me that the more he heard that thing the less he liked it, and everybody around there loved hearing it. It was too strange for Sam, but it was strange.
Yeah, and that’s what made it good. How do you feel like they handled the Walk The Line movie, did you enjoy that?
Yeah, I appreciated it and the fact that those actors became singers. I’m kind of nutty because I like actors that are singers. Actors seem to understand singing more than singers understand acting. Like Richard Harris, that did "McArthur Park," the British guy. I loved that.
Cowboy Jack, Charlie Pride, Waylon Jennings, Travis Tritt and Marty Stuart.
In that movie, the way they portrayed Sam Philips, was that accurate?
Oh, it was alright. There was not enough of it. Sam is a hard person to capture visually, because he had movements and mannerisms and all of that. I think they could have done better casting of Sam Philips. All that dialogue between Sam and Johnny- I don’t think that it happened like that anyway.
I told a friend that I seriously doubted that they started playing "Folsom Prison Blues" and then worked it up as they went along like that... (laughs)
I went up to see that Broadway show Ring of Fire last week because I have two songs in it, "Dirty Old Egg Suckin’ Dog" and "Flushed from The Bathroom of Your Heart". It was a fun show. I totally enjoyed it. Several years ago I was going to produce a tribute album of Johnny Cash’s songs, and they had to be all songs he wrote or co-wrote. This was a tribute to Johnny Cash the composer. I was going to take the songs and treat them like they were brand new songs, and just interpret them as if I had never heard them. I never finished it but got a really good cut with Marty Stuart singing "Train of Love." But that was 7-8 years ago and I may do that yet.
But anyway, in a lot of ways this show did that and there were lots of songs in there that he didn’t write like mine and some others, Kristofferson and others that he recorded. But he wrote most of them I guess. It was Broadway show that really didn’t have a plot or dialog and the story is revealed in the song lyrics. I thoroughly enjoyed it. A critic in New York kind of panned it.
Oh well, they tend to do that... one thing I wanted to ask you about on the same subject kind of... on the Million Dollar Quartet... how did that come to be... it was a very cool thing...
Well, first of all Carl Perkins was cutting a session, Sam was engineering it and I am sitting in the control room and Jerry Lee had been in town for a few weeks and then I was using him on session, and I had convinced Sam and Carl to hire Jerry Lee to play the piano and that is the reason Jerry Lee was there. He was hired to do piano. The thing we did that day that was memorable was "Matchbox." Johnny Cash was there because Carl had invited him and they were good buddies. The session was about to end and Elvis walked in with a small entourage and of course everything just sort of stopped. Sam went next door to Taylor’s Restaurant.
They were talking and pretty soon started jamming on some old gospel tunes, and the mikes were still out there so I turned on the volume because I was still in the control room. I was thinking that I would be remiss not to record some of this so I put on a tape and walked out into the studio and moved a couple of the mikes around where the people were jamming and stuff and let it roll. Every time the tape would end I would put another one on. So I think that there was about a total of about one and a half hours of it recorded that day. Nobody thought much about those tapes and they just set there in the control room and now it has found it’s way onto a record. I think they are going to prerelease it.
Someone sent me a bootleg copy of the whole thing, it’s like about an hour and a half.
Oh, it may be. I don’t know if the whole thing is on there though, because it seemed like there is an awful lot of stuff. There were several tapes.
It sounded like they were having fun.
That was the only time I had ever pushed the recording button in the studio with Elvis, but I had worked with him on some shows and night clubs. He always came by Sun because it was a homing instinct. He always called Sam Mr. Philips. He would drop by periodically, and that was when he came to town and he was there a good bit of the time. He liked to jam.
When I was looking over all of the things that you have done it was hard to narrow it down, but I wanted to know about some of these people that you have worked with... how about John Hartford... did you enjoy that?
Did you hear the album Gum Tree Canoe?
I am very proud of that. We worked on that for a year or so and we weren’t in any big hurry. During that time I went out and played gigs with him and went to New York and played with the Nashville Symphony one time and all kinds of stuff and it was kind of an adventure. I had known him for years, not real well and I knew him when he was in town before he went to California and was hanging out with Tompall and the Glasers and I was producing them, but I didn’t really know the guy. One time I was doing a job for Johnny Cash and I needed a fiddle player and I called him and he came over and fiddled and enjoyed my place. Later on, he asked me if I would help him produce the record. That’s when we got into Gum Tree Canoe.
Another thing I was curious about is why you call yourself the Polka King of Nashville?
I call myself that and if anyone doubts it I can whip out my tapes and share them. I have been doing those for about 15 years or more ago, and sooner or later I can put out a polka album. I am working on a singing album now and it’s going to have a couple of polkas on it.
That segues into my next question which is I have just finished doing an interview with Steve Popovich and he is as you know a big polka person, can you tell me how long have you known Steve and how did you come to know him.
Steve is the one that got me into it in the first place.
How long have you known him and tell me about the relationship?
Strangely enough, I met him in France and we were at a medium convention. Maybe I first met him in Nashville. But anyway at this convention I did’t do what I was supposed to do, you must stay up all day and then go to sleep, but when I got there I went to sleep and got up later. At about midnight, I ran into Steve and we talked and talked. I felt like we might do some business together at some point. And anyway we stayed in touch.He called me one Thanksgiving, and at that time my mother and my son were in Florida for a few months and my daughter and I were here trying to figure out what we were going to do for Thanksgiving. Steve called and wanted us to come to Cleveland to the annual Thanksgiving Polka Festival. So I talked to my daughter and asked her if she wanted to do something besides eat turkey for a change and she agreed and we went and had the greatest time. I got back into that music that I had not heard for 30 some odd years.
I am doing another singing album and it is going to be very danceable and it is going to be either samba, polka, or fox-trot. What else is there, you know? We have stayed friends and I have been to that festival other times and these polka bands come from all over and they bring people. I knew Popovich before he came to Nashville. Then he came to Nashville and took over Polygram, Mercury Records. We had a bunch of adventures there. I had the opportunity to produce a polka album with Frankly live. He was doing this polka party and I went and videotaped it and recorded it and I put it out. He also got me involved in doing some other albums. I miss seeing him and he is one of my best friends. His son, Steve, Jr. is my producer on my radio show, for SIRIUS satellite radio show.
Jack with Steve Popovich.
I just saw them in Nashville. I liked Steve, Jr. a lot too. What is your format on the radio program?
We just chit-chat and tell some stories and play records. Any other day I take my remote control fart machines that I keep in my bathroom next to my office. So when people go in there, and it’s loud in that room. I have a remote control so whenever anyone goes in there I let them have it. I got Alison Krauss the other day. It was funny. She loved it and I could hear her laughing through the walls. Anyway, I blow the kazoo sometimes or play some ukulele and then I play records. When they asked me to do this show they said I could play what I wanted to. So I play polkas sometimes and Spike Jones. One of my favorite things to play is "After The Fire Has Gone," by Willie and Tracy Nelson. They pick a lot of songs but they have a list of things that I like and sometimes slip one in that I am not too fond of. They have not turned down anything I wanted on the list so far.
As a songwriter, you have written all kinds of great songs, and also I have to say that "Dirty Old, Egg-Suckin’ Dog" is one of my favorites. I just love a tender love song like that. (Laughs) I remember in college we played that Cash live album all the time.
I got to stand up and see someone sing that on Broadway Stage last week.
That’s got to make you feel good. All the way to Broadway with Cowboy Jack. When you write songs do you have a particular process?
I have a tendency to start in the middle, but don’t really have a format. I tend to come up with ideas while driving my car. I can just sing as bad as I want to in the car. Several of my ideas have come that way. I sit down and start writing words. I tend to write the words and then put a tune to it. But not always. Sit down and just see what happens.
Of all the albums that you have produced do you have a favorite?
It’s probably Dreaming My Dreams by Waylon Jennings.
I felt like you would say that.
It was crazy and inspiring to do that album. Everybody knows that Waylon was into fun powder and stuff. We had a lot of fun and some misunderstandings along the way. It took about 6 months to do the thing but we finished it and did sell about a million or more. His first album sold one million, I think. It’s finally out on CD now.
One of the artists on our cover this month is Marshall Chapman, and she speaks highly of you and I just wanted to see if you could say a few words about her.
I love Marshall. I met her when she was about 19 and a student at Vanderbilt. A friend of mine named Walter Ford from Chattanooga was here and her father was a business associate of his, Marshall I met and then I heard her sing some time after that and I felt she was very good. She can stand up there and let you have it.
Weren’t you involved in her wedding?
Yeah, I sang at it. (Sings the song)
She met me at Vandyland the other week in Nashville, what a great girl. How about your foray into film production on Dear Dead Delilah. Were you always a fan of movies?
Oh, yeah, I always wanted to produce a movie. I do home movies and stuff. I have lots of footage. Some people did a documentary on me that won some awards and has some of my home movies and some footage of Johnny Cash doing some stuff. Laying on his back crawling into a Ferrari in my driveway. It will be out sooner or later, because everyone loves it. We have some crazy Shakespeare stuff.
Cowboy recording with Johnny, June and the Carter family. (Note Waylon and Jessi looking on.)
Is it true that you have worked with Paul McCartney?
No, I didn’t. I did an album with Johnny Cash called Water From the Wells of Home, a series of duets. While he was in England he went to Paul’s house and they did a song together, and then he brought the master back to me and I had to fix it. So we co-produced that one track, he started it and I finished it. We were not doing it at the same time. I did spend an evening with him one night, him and Linda. He was in town one time for about six weeks. He had rented a house on the lake so he had a party. I was dating Johnny Cash’s sister Reba at that time. We were out on the lake eating and then everyone left and we sat around in the kitchen with Paul and Linda and their little kids. We sat around and smoked cigarettes and talking and stuff, just having fun. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I asked him if he ever had a record he was completely happy with and he said he liked "Yesterday." I asked him if he ever thought about cutting it again.He said no. It didn’t offend him but I thought maybe he might want to do it again in 20 years or so. (sings "Yesterday")
To wrap up I just want to ask you what is next?
There is a bunch of stuff going on. I am finishing an album I produced for Louis Armstrong in 1970-71 and I am now systematically checking up his vocal track and getting a new band. I was not happy with it and needed more time. I have been working in Pro-Tools and that is a tricky project, but it is coming along. I have been working on this for months. I was trying to overdub on the original tracks and I have been doing the scratch vocals. I told the guys to put Louis where he hears my voice. I wasn’t trying to sing like him but phrase what I wanted his voice to be. I am an expert on Louis Armstrong now. That was one of the greatest experiences of my life. I am still working on that same album.
There is rumor that there might be a Charlie Pride movie. Terrance Howard is gong to play Charlie Pride, he mentioned it on the Oprah Show. He looks good.
You were instrumental in Charlie's career too.
Yeah, I paid for his first record and produced his first 20 albums. There is a lot of material in there. Now if there is a movie and they wind up using those tracks, hey, it’ll be a good year. (laughs)