A few weeks ago, the music world mourned the passing of Nashville legend, Cowboy Jack Clement. A record producer, songwriter, performer, and more, Cowboy Jack will be posthumously inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame this Fall. Ronnie McCoury passed along these memories of Cowboy Jack to honor his life and legacy. RIP Cowboy.
Take it away, Ronnie…
I first met Cowboy Jack Clement in the early nineties, shortly after we moved to Nashville. David “Fergie” Ferguson introduced me to Cowboy at his Cowboy Arms Hotel and Recording Spa on Belmont Ave. Ferg had been Cowboy’s engineer and protege since he was nineteen years, at this point over ten years. We walked in to Cowboy’s office and Ferg said, “I found you a mandolin picker!” Cowboy said, “Great, I love the mandolin!” We hit it off right away.
It was in his office that we spent countless hours playing and singing and just hanging out! It was in his office I met Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Chet Atkins, John Prine, Allen Reynolds, Garth Fundis, Charlie Pride, and countless others. I felt proud when he’d introduce me as “MY mandolin picker!” I sat enthralled listening to the stories of all these folks that came to hang with (as we affectionately called him) Cowdaddy!!
He told me of his youth in Memphis, TN growing up and the music he heard, and later, entering the service and being a proud US Marine. He had a picture on the office wall of himself at attention in DC as the Queen of England walked down the stairs in front of him. In the picture, you see the Queen’s slip showing under her dress; he said that made news because “you never saw the Queen’s undergarments!” He loved it!
I got the whole lowdown on how he got the job working at Sun Records with Sam Phillips, discovering Jerry Lee Lewis, writing songs for Cash, producing Roy Orbison, Billie Lee Riley, and many others there.
One day at a Jerry Lee session, they were working on a ballad Cowboy wrote, and it wasn’t working out too well. Jerry’s bass player suggested they do a song that they’d been doing on the road shows which people liked. Cowboy said, “Wait. Let me hit Record.”
It was Great Balls of Fire! He loved to tell that story and would say, “RAW ROCKIN ROLL!” He was there!!
Cowboy later moved to Nashville, Beaumont, TX, back to Nashville, and worked with a who’s who list of country, rock’n roll, and bluegrass artists. He has a Louis Armstrong record he produced but never came out because “it wasn’t finished.” Most of this is documented many times over, but hearing it from him was a wonderful experience every time.
It was all new to me because I didn’t know who Cowboy Jack was or what he had done. I worked for him on many sessions upstairs at the Recording Spa. He would put all kinds of instruments on a song and would say, “We don’t know what it’ll sound like till we put it on; we can always take it off.” It was great watching him work, and I learned a lot.
Mac Wiseman told me about working with Jack. He recorded Me and Bobby McGee, and Jack had a fade out then a fade IN on the end of it with everyone singing “la-la-la’s.” It’s kind of his strange genius maybe because Mac said, “DJ’s loved it because they could let it play while they read the news, and it’d come back in when they were done.” Funny!
When David Grisman and I decided to make the Bluegrass Mandolin Extravaganza in Nashville, I knew Cowboy’s would be a great place to record it. A great vibe! He and David got along wonderfully, and he “loved the mandolin!” That was a great two weeks and some incredible memories.
I’m very proud to have been in his documentary, Shakespeare Was A Big George Jones Fan, with my dad as we picked with Cowboy. It’s basically Cowboy’s home movies, but it shows the Man, the Legend.
Recently, we just did a huge video taping tribute to him here in Nashville, and I was his house mandolin picker and played with a who’s who list of Cowboy lovers! I cant wait for that to come out!
As the years went by and my touring schedule got more and more hectic, and I was raising my own family, we didn’t get to hang as much as we once did. He was still producing in his last year and anytime he called I was there. Fergie was also producing a record on Cowboy when he passed. I recorded Beautiful Dreamer with him. He sang it great; 81 years old — perfect song for him! The day before he died, my dad, Jason [Carter], and I sang on a gospel song of his, Jesus Don’t Give Up On Me.
This town, for me and countless others, is changed forever. He was a “real” Cowboy in so many ways in this business. I’ll miss his stories, his sense of humor, his singing and playing, but most of all his spirit! I may just be a mandolin picker, but I was Cowdaddy’s mandolin picker!