Cowboy Jack Clement (right) was a great songwriter. It would be true even if his songs weren’t recorded by Johnny Cash, John Prine, U2, Kris Kristofferson, Hank Snow, Cliff Richard, Ray Charles, Gram Parsons, Elvis Presley, George Jones, Dolly Parton, Garth Brooks and Charley Pride.

But the fact that all those legends did record his songs makes it easy to establish why Cowboy mattered. But there was a lot more. He was one of those musical souls, similar to Lou Adler, who was a true catalyst with a keen knack for hooking up with great talent, and bringing out their best.

He was also a brilliant producer and arranger, and one brave enough to exist within Nashville’s music community and yet bust through long-accepted musical strictures. Bringing in mariachi horns to a Johnny Cash song didn’t make a lot of sense to most people. Until they heard “Ring of Fire.” Johnny wrote the song, and delivered it like nobody else ever could. But it was Jack who added the horns, a sound which transformed Country music, and established Johnny Cash as one of its greatest stars.

Jack would have turned 89 this year, on April 5. But he famously wasn’t the kind of guy who waited for a birthday to celebrate. His pal John Prine was the same way. As John used to say, “You know, it’s someone’s birthday every day.” 

The man who was Cowboy Jack wrote gems. “Miller’s Cave,” “I Know One,” “Just Someone I Used To Know,” “Guess Things Happen That Way” and “It’ll Be Me.” He left us in 2013, and his absence is still felt in his hometown of Nashville and beyond.

My copy of his cd All I Want To Do In Life (left) is one the touchstones of my music. Long and rambling conversations among friends brought home from a folk club at half-past whiskey in the morning are less frequent these days, but there were nights when the inevitable questions were asked about what music we we into, and I would then, and still now, if needs be, simply press play on the cd player where All I Want To Do In Life would be lined up and ready to roll ! Sometimes, old mates like Ian and Gary would lead an accompanying singalong in a reverential even while half cut version of When I Dream. In what fellow journalist Neil Senior called my ´portly pretentiousness´ I would hold court about ´the simple gravtias´ of the lyrics, the poppy, almost bubblegum, rhythms and the mischievious deliveries and the sheer joy Cowboy Jack conveyed.

As the album faded I could almost see the shades dropping from people´s eyes, And the raggle taggle lost boys and girls looking for a home in the night instead found a home forever in the past, present and future of music that creates and celebrates perpetuity. .

At a concert tribute to him before his death at the War Memorial Arena the range of people who came to sing his praises and his songs showed the full vista of his impact, and the reason he truly qualified as a “songwriter’s songwriter”: John Prine, John Hiatt, Kristofferson, Bono, T Bone Burnett, Dan Auerbach were all there, as was a First Lady – Michelle Obama (right) – and a former president, Bill Clinton. The man was beloved.

Cowboy defied the conventions of Nashville’s recording studios by building a studio right in his home (long before the idea was common.) He figured that if he allowed artists to make music away from the clockwork pressure of official studios that they could relax and do great work. And he was right. He called it the Cowboy Arms and Recording Spa, and it became a symbol of what was called Country music’s Outlaw revolution.

On June 25, 2011 more than a dozen fire trucks sirened their way to a handsome brick and timber house on Nashville’s Belmont Boulevard, where a blaze was engulfing the second floor. It was a historic loss – The Cowboy Arms Hotel And Recording Spa, the fancifully named, fully-functioning studio (and home) of Cowboy Jack Clement, one of the few songwriters and record producers who could legitimately be called legendary.

Clement was 80 years old at the time. He and his “leading lady” Aleene escaped the burning structure unharmed, with their cats and a prized Gibson J-200 acoustic guitar he’d owned for 60 years. Otherwise, many other instruments, recording equipment and hundreds of Clement’s personal demo recordings and work-in-progress sessions with great Nashville songwriters were destroyed.

The next day, family member Bob Clement made his way up what was left of the stairway to the former studio. “I remember how beautiful and clear blue it was the day after the fire,” Bob said recently, sitting in what is now the fully renovated second floor. “Strangest thing. This whole attic, it just looked like a big deck on top of the house. (The roof) was just gone. There was a piano in the corner. Everybody knew where it was, but I came up and there was no piano. I couldn’t find even the cast (metal) part. It was just the strangest thing. It was like it had been airlifted out or something.”  

The rebuilding and revival of Cowboy Jack’s personal studio is a bright spot in a time when some Music City landmarks from the same era are being demolished. It’s not the same suite of rooms exactly, but the bones and foundation of the house are the same. And the studio is a close approximation of its former self, as well as a functional improvement, overseen by a relative who knew Jack Clement for decades.

“Cousin” Bob Clement, as Cowboy called him (Bob’s father is Jack’s first cousin), grew up in Jackson, Mississippi and moved to Nashville in 1987, curious about his middle distance relative. Cowboy Jack, he discovered, was a jovial and restless overseer of a humming, commune-like production company that filled every space in the home. Besides doing some recording of his own, Bob worked as part of the technical crew during one of Jack’s less-than-triumphant stabs at TV and film production. Still, Bob learned the business and then became a professional lighting designer before going into the hand-made furniture business down in Franklin, where he was raising a family.

So after the fire happened, Bob was particularly qualified to consult with Jack and Aleene about reconstruction. They managed the project, building in improvements where needed and building for history where appropriate, including Cowboy Jack’s first floor office. Today it looks quite close to the way it was the day he salvaged his Gibson, down to the wraparound counter, the gigantic loudspeakers and a communication system that let Jack listen, consult and produce from one flight down. Jack got to see his headquarters completely repaired and updated, but only briefly, before he died in mid 2013, at age 82.

Today, Cousin Bob occupies the Belmont Boulevard home with his wife and two kids. The studio (left) is still up the same narrow set of stairs, although long-time fans and friends will miss the cartoon sky mural of the old days. The mixing console is in the same place, facing away from the center of the room. Over the engineer’s shoulder is the entrance to the studio itself, a spacious central room even bigger than before, with isolation rooms off in several directions. It’s full of instruments. But that’s just the inanimate side. What matters is the place is again alive with songwriters.

One of them is Jon Cavendish, a long-time bass playing sideman who’s developing his debut as an artist, using the Spa as a laboratory and tracking room. He earned insider status with sweat equity, as part of the team that moved the 800-pound vintage mixing console up the stairs to its current place.  This studio, he said “is really inspiring to me as someone who’s trying to figure out where his voice fits. It’s totally relaxed. Bob is just wonderful, eccentric in all the right ways. He’s a generation younger (than Jack), and I absolutely feel like he has that passion.”

Jack Clement made being passionate, eccentric and relaxed into an art form from the 1960s to the 2000s, setting his varied skills and relationships to historic purposes as one of Nashville’s defining producers and music scene makers. He came of age working under Sam Phillips at Sun Studio in Memphis. In Music City, he championed the career of an unknown Charley Pride, producing the run of albums that made the Mississippi-born singer the first black Country Music Hall of Famer since DeFord Bailey. For that and many other contributions, Jack himself became a Hall of Famer and the subject of a very funny and quirky documentary.

The Cowboy Arms studio isn’t to be confused with another recording landmark a few blocks down on Belmont, where the curious can find a Jack Clement historic marker. Jack built that place, his first in town, in 1969. It later became known as Sound Emporium, a vital Music City locus of creativity for Garth Brooks, Alison Krauss, the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack and much more. The home studio nearby was looser, less a commercial enterprise and more of a community hub, where Jack worked and played with Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings, Chet Atkins, Billy Burnette, Shawn Camp and countless others. Clement called it “a home studio gone wild” with as much emphasis on the home as the wild.

After the renovation and Clement’s death, the family sold the house to a music publishing company, but after a few years, they called Bob to say they were ready to sell and wanted to give him first refusal. He didn’t refuse.

The new Spa is busy daily with recording or mixing. Besides Jon Cavendish, they’ve been making records here on songwriters they hope you’ll be hearing about – Peck Chandler, Conrad FisherDoak Snead and Bob’s daughter Emily. Bob says it’s going to maintain the clubhouse ethos of its most famous proprietor, whose professional motto was “We’re in the Fun Business. If we’re not having fun, we’re not doing our job.” And that means that the business model isn’t typical either.

“My operating philosophy is we’re not going to mass advertise,” Clement says. “Here’s what would be perfect. Our friends record here. And the friends of our friends. That’s the way I’d like it to keep growing.”

The good news is that around here, it’s not hard to become a friend.

Many great artists made landmark albums there, including Johnny Cash, John Prine, Waylon Jennings, Townes Van Zandt, Charley Pride, Bobby Bare, Dolly Parton, and many more.

Born in Memphis on April 5, 1931, Jack studied at Memphis State from 1953 to 1955, during which he played pedal steel and was forever called “Cowboy.” He made a giant leap by hooking up with Sam Phillips at Memphis’ own Sun Records. Adept not only at the technical aspects of the job but musical ones, he proved his instincts were right on when Sam was out of town and a young rocking pianist named Jerry Lee Lewis showed up. Jack knew not to let him go without getting him on tape. It was a legendary discovery, and showed that this cowboy knew what he was doing. He recorded “A Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On,” which propelled the pianist to superstardom, and secured Jack a seat at the console.

Soon he was doing it all – writing songs, engineering, and even producing.

In 1957 he wrote and co-produced (with Phillips) “Ballad Of A Teenage Queen,” which became a #1 Country hit as recorded by Johnny Cash. Although Cowboy wrote it, he wisely was receptive to Cash’s arrangement notions, which led to triumph:

“When I wrote ‘Teenage Queen’ in 1957,” he said, “I had in mind a kind of calypso/rumba, but Johnny recorded it a whole different way. And I’m glad he did.”

At only just longer than two minutes it’s a remarkable record, a short movie about a small town girl who goes to Hollywood, ideal for Cash. It led to a chain of great records, including “Guess Things Happen That Way” as well as the hilariously bluesy “Egg Sucking Dog.”

One of Johnny Cash’s final sessions was in Jack’s downstairs office, because he couldn’t climb the stairs. “Johnny was a wonderful, wonderful man,” Jack said of his absent friend. “I think about him every day.”

In 1956 he engineered one of Sun Studios’ impromptu intersections of greatness when Elvis Presley teamed up with Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins to create what’s become known as “The Million Dollar Quartet,” for which a Broadway musical was created.

Jack went on to write, record and produce great music with one legend after the next, including Charlie Rich, Roy Orbison, John Hartford, Doc Watson, Townes Van Zandt, Don Williams, Waylon Jennings, and even Satchmo himself, Louis Armstrong.

It was Cowboy who broke the long-time country music color barrier when he discovered and produced Charlie Pride. They made 20 albums together, in addition to forever expanding musical boundaries.

He soon formed several publishing companies to contain his empire, started his own label, built his own studios, and even produced a cult horror film in 1975, Dear Dead Delilah, which marked the final performance of Agnes Moorehead.

In 1988 he was invited by a band he’d never head of – U2 – to produce classic tracks for Rattle And Hum, including “When Love Came To Town,” featuring B.B. King, “Angel of Harlem” and “Love Rescue Me,” with backing vocals by Bob Dylan.

“I’ve got a bunch of people who say I’m a genius,” he said with a smile. “That don’t make me a genius. But you’ve got to be pretty smart to get all them people to say that on cue.”

When you asked him what the secret is to making music so good his whole life, he says it’s no secret at all – music is fun. Sometimes the fun took over so much that not a lot of music was made. Jack was slated to produce John Prine’s Bruised Orange album, and had a lot of

fun with John in the studio. But they never got an album made, which is why Steve Goodman came in and rescued the album by taking over.

But that was rare. It was towards the end of  Jack’s journey, and he’d already done more work than most men ever do, and had every right to coast a little. 

“I’ve been a music bum all of my adult life,” he said. “Making music has always been my hobby and it still is. I’ve always said that we’re all in the fun business, and if we’re not having fun then we’re not doing our job.”

Mary Gauthier (right) who featured on these pages in the article Dark Enough To See The Stars on mMay 12th 2022 has fond memories of Cowboy Jack and told American Songwriter that

“I met Cowboy Jack Clement when I moved to Nashville in 2001 – I went looking for him. He invited me into his house, The Cowboy Arms & Recording Spa, and played me the movie that was made about his life, Shakespeare Was a Big George Jones Fan: Cowboy Jack Clement’s Home Movies. We stayed up very late watching it, and he laughed out loud at all the funny parts and I couldn’t believe I was sitting with him in his office in the middle of the night like we were old friends. It was surreal and as fine a way to start a friendship as I’d ever known. He played me some unreleased Louis Armstrong songs that he’d recorded, and we listened to some old Johnny Cash stuff, from the Sun years. What a welcome to Nashville that was, what a wonderful memory it will always be. Cowboy was the most original, eccentric, hysterical, visionary clown I’ve ever met. His contributions to the American songbook are immeasurable, and I doubt there’d be an Americana Genre without him. I’ll be forever grateful that there ever was a Cowboy Jack . . .  as unlikely a human being as God ever made. We had him for 82 years, and for that we can only say thank you, thank you.”

I´m pretty sure that it was part of the tv series referred to earlier, being presented by Hank Wangford, that we in England were introduced to a girl singer Cowboy Jack was producing at the time. Debra Dekalaita seemed about as crazy as a box of Kate Bushes, but there was quirkiness about her songs like You´ll Remember Me and Round And Round somehow I ended up with a demo tape of the work she and Cowboy created and it remains one of the most treasured recordings in my archives.

Sometime in the nineteen nineties I think, I asked my pal Gary Hall, who was going over to Nashville to record his debut album for RoundTower Records, if he would look up Cowboy Jack and ask if he knew anything of the whereabouts of that girl singer who had so much impressed me, Gary fully intended trying to meet Cowboy anyways, and on the day that he did he also met Debra, but returned to England andtold me he had found it difficult to talk to her as she had a very short attention span.

So that seemed the end of that, until today, when I have tapped Debra´s name into every search engine I have, and found a new glimmer of hope. A lady from Denmark, Tamra Rosanes, I have somewhat belatedly learned,released an album called Footloose which was a song written by Debra and which features on the now-to-the-point-of-snapping demo tape I have feared for years has been too fragile to play. In fact on the playlist of the album by Tamra is another track, Open Space that was apparently co-written with  Debra; I´m back on the trail. Watch this space.

It was not just his quirky sense of humour and love of a pun that endeared me to Cowboy Jack Clement, not even when I add that memory to my memories of all the great artists and albums he produced nor even the sidetracks and detours he took following his vocation of having fun,……………….. really it was his singing voice that I loved, and why Ian Johnson, Hank Wangford and I all immediately burst into the opening line of When I Dream wheneverf his name fell out in conversation. He was a fine musician, too, of course and he made sure that the production values he applied when producing for others were adhered to in how own recordingsd.

It was a combination of all that which made All I Want To Do Inb Life such a sublime album.

The album contained a sublime title track and the marvellous percussion led verses and the whispered choruses of We Must Believe In Magic. I loved Gone Girl, which hooked me as its opening track and jolly Roving Gamble was country infused with folk, and there was that booming but oh so gentle ballad of When I Dream.

For me, though, the stand-out track on a stand-out album was Queen Bee, a seemingly frothy topped pop song, delivered absolutely straight by Cowboy and blew away any of the hundred or so other other  covers of this song attributed to Taj Mahal.

Guess Things Happen That Way, his second albumin 2014, opened with his cover of No Expectations written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

For Once And For All, his third album, released posthumously in 2014, the year after his death, included a lovely version of his own lyrics to Miller´s Cave, a song  that had already been recorded by artists as diverse as Hank Snow, Charley Pride and Louis Amrstrong.

You might have arrived at the same conclusion after reading those final paragraphs that I arrived at as I wrote them, Yes, he was a funny guy, but he was a fine vocalist, excellent musician, great writer and yes, he held high production values. However. the truth, I now realise, is that I am most grateful to him for his impeccable taste and reverence when it mattered.

Nevertheless, he purveyed it all with a sense of humour and one of my abiding memories of one of those Hank Wangford doucmentaries ias a cli`p of Coboy Jack, hil little ukelle in his hand, offering to play one of his favourite songs by joihn Prine, one of favouriotes songwriters.

He began singing what sounded something like Ohka noka whatta setta knocka, rocka sis boom boccas. Only after completing the song witha wickjed grin on his face did Cowboy Jacke reveal to asurely mostly unsuspecting public that the song was called Let´s Talk Dirty In Hawaian. Even those of who were familiar with Prine´s own version or takes by the likes of Steve Goodman had perhaps never heard it delivered with such wide-eyed-. faux schoolboy innonce as had been invested by Cowboy Jack !!

Sidetracks And Detours has recently advertised a  ´Jazz In Reading´ performance scheduled at  the Progress Theatre, tonight at 7.30 pm. This an excellent and innovative quintet appearing as part of a tour to promote their debut album.

  • Alban Claret guitar
  • Evan Clegg trumpet
  • Duncan Eagles tenor sax
  • Luke Fowler double bass
  • Kuba Miazga drums

 “The Collection” comprises a quintet co-led by the French guitarist Alban Claret and the Yorkshire born trumpeter Evan Clegg. These London based musicians joined forces to record a ‘collection’ of compositions inspired by the works of some of their primary influences, notably saxophonist Charlie Parker, trumpeter Miles Davis and pianist Lennie Tristano.

A shared love of bebop and composition discovered at a fortuitous meeting at Tate Britain, set the two on a path leading to the May 2021 release of their debut album The Collection. Their original material rooted firmly within the jazz tradition, powerful delivery of snappy tunes and confident improvisational passages offer a compelling yet accessible listening experience.

The Striking aspect of this album suggests great promise for the future”  – Jazzwise 

A set of highly accomplished & hugely enjoyable tunes. The quality of the playing is exceptional.” The Jazz Mann 

Alban Claret was born in the South of France and began playing the guitar when he was eight years old. He studied at the Royal Conservatory of the Netherlands with Martijn van Iterson. He has played with many luminaries, including Gregory Hutchinson and David Liebman.

Evan Clegg grew up in Yorkshire and studied jazz trumpet at Royal Welsh College of Drama and Trinity College of Music. He has performed in many of London’s notable venues and in Europe, the USA, Mexico, India and the Middle East. He has toured with Max Romeo and Lee Scratch Perry.  Spending time with Kenny Wheeler further shaped his playing and he has developed a mature, distinctive style with musical ‘to-the-point’ phrasing that nods to his influences but is a unique voice of his own.

I guess that most jazz fans would acknowledge that feel of the music relies lot on impetus and that a clear sense of direction and purpose has to drive the music along. That is true, perhaps not only of the musicians, but also the venue organisers, we in the media and you in the audiences, With   the holiday season getting into swing and the start of the local Swanage Jazz Festival there reports that a few tickets remain unsolc.
Live music grows exponetialyy by being delivered to full houses, and tonight there might be an opportunity for those of you have already purchased tickets to perhaps persuade a friend to come along and see if they enjoy what you so frequently enjoy.
If you haven’t yet planned to come along, please consider doing so. The Jazz in Reading team – and the band – will be most grateful.

And remember – we will select in the hours before the show a Golden Seat. If it’s yours, you’ll get your money back!
Many thanks  

The Jazz in Reading team

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