Cowboy Jack Clement passes at 82

One of the most influential men in the history of American music has passed away. Primarily known for his work in country music, Cowboy Jack Clement’s influence runs the gamut including country, rock and roll, folk, bluegrass, and more. A true renaissance man, “Cowboy” (as he was affectionately known) was as a songwriter, record producer, performer, singer, movie producer, dance instructor, and one of the most unique personalities the entertainment industry has ever known.

Cowboy made a name for himself working for Sam Phillips at Sun Records. It is there he discovered Jerry Lee Lewis, developed a young Johnny Cash, and worked with such artists as Roy Orbison, Charlie Rich, and Carl Perkins. Upon leaving Sun, Cowboy became a titan in the country music industry. He helped a young African American named Charley Pride become a country music star during the civil rights movement, aiding in his signing with RCA and producing thirteen of his albums. He also discovered Don Williams and helped Don make country’s first music video.

He produced records for some of the biggest names in music.

  • Waylon Jennings
  • Louis Armstrong
  • Eddy Arnold
  • John Prine
  • Jerry Lee Lewis
  • Charlie Rich
  • Bobby Bare
  • U2
  • Tompall Glaser & The Glaser Brothers
  • Roy Orbison
  • Townes Van Zandt
  • Johnny Cash
  • Emmylou Harris

His songwriting credits include some of country’s biggest hits.

  • Guess Things Happen That Way
  • I Know One
  • Just Someone I Used To Know
  • The Ballad Of A Teenage Queen
  • California Girl And The Tennessee Square
  • Miller’s Cave
  • Dirty Old Egg-Sucking Dog
  • Just Between You And Me
  • The One On The Right Is On The Left
  • It’ll Be Me
  • Let’s All Help The Cowboy Sing The Blues

Cowboy has many ties to bluegrass music as well. Before working at Sun Records, he had a bluegrass band in the DC area with Buzz Busby (Buzz & Jack and The Bayou Boys). Throughout the years, he was often seen playing his mandolin, usually while humming and dancing. Cowboy also produced albums for bluegrass hall-of-famer’s Doc Watson, Mac Wiseman, and John Hartford.

Stories about Cowboy are some of the music industry’s greatest urban legends. One of my favorites comes from the liner notes of Johnny Cash’s album, Gone Girl. One of Cash’s dearest friends, Cowboy wrote the title track and played guitar on the album. The liner notes consist merely of Cash recounting a night in New York City with Jack Clement, June Carter, and Jan Howard. Here is an excerpt.

Then old Jack started singing Gone Girl to the cab driver, and we all joined in.
We didn’t pay him when we got to the Lone Star [Cafe] ’cause we knew we’d not stay long and we just had him wait.
We had a table somewhere in the back of the room where they sat us with another couple who had ordered fried potatoes. Jack had some of their fried potatoes and told the girl that she was making a mistake going with that guy. Then we left.
“You must believe in magic,” said Jack to the cab driver.
“I’ll never forget this night as long as I live,” said the driver.
Now ole Jack sang Gone Girl out the window to his fellow Americans in New York City. Nobody applauded, but everyone was interested.

Unfortunately, I was never able to meet Cowboy Jack, although I’ve long been an admirer. His wit and unique outlook on life were awe-inspiring. Particularly after watching the only documentary on Cowboy Jack Clement (Shakespeare Was A Big George Jones Fan — greatest movie title EVER!), I got the impression that Cowboy Jack is what we all want to be, but he’s the only person who ever figured out how.

As a kid, I had never known much about Jack Clement other than the fact that he helped write and produce many of Cash’s Sun recordings. One day, I got a new Cash documentary (Johnny Cash’s America to be exact). The first thing I said to my dad after watching this great documentary on Cash’s impact on American culture was, “Dad, who’s Jack Clement?” Of course he was curious as to why I was asking. It was because the portions of the film when Jack was speaking were the most interesting. Honestly, I can’t remember one thing Jack said, but all of his interview portions were done with his shirt off while in his swimming pool!

Ever since then, I’ve been trying to answer that question: “Who’s Jack Clement?” The more I know about him, the more I realize I don’t think that question can ever be answered.

Jack Clement produced the album Two Days In November for Doc & Merle Watson. He also wrote the liner notes. Along with crediting the musicians and engineers, he credits himself for running the lights…

Stay tuned. We should have Ronnie McCoury’s reflections on his friend, Cowboy Jack Clement, coming soon.

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About the Author

Daniel Mullins

Daniel Mullins is an IBMA award-winning journalist and broadcaster from southwestern Ohio, with an American Studies degree from Cedarville University. He hosts the Walls of Time: Bluegrass Podcast and his daily radio program, The Daniel Mullins Midday Music Spectacular, on the Real Roots Radio network. He also serves as the station’s music director, programming country, bluegrass, and Americana music.