I blame my eldest son for starting the chain of events that led me to meeting Cowboy Jack Clement. He’d set me up on broadband in November 2004 and I began listening to country music on internet radio. A few months later, I heard a very catchy instrumental being played. The title was, ‘That Little Tune’, by the Dixie Doodle Construction Company. It so grabbed my attention that I wanted to buy a copy of the music. Tracking it down wasn’t easy, but I eventually found a copy of it. However, it was not on CD, but on a 45 rpm vinyl single. The composer, named on the label of the record, was Jack Clement. I recognised the name as being the Nashville music producer, Cowboy Jack Clement. I had probably seen his name mentioned in Doug Davis’s country music newsletter, which I had been receiving since 2005.
So who is Cowboy Jack Clement?
Considering the huge influence he had on the music scene for over 50 years, the name of Cowboy Jack Clement is surprisingly unknown. This is particularly so in the UK. Even in the United States, away from Nashville, TN, there are many people who have never heard of him. But, whether they know it or not, most people who have ever heard country, folk, bluegrass or rock-and-roll music will have heard artists he produced, and songs he wrote.
He was a combination of musician, music producer, songwriter, publisher and performer. He was also an engineer, executive and entrepreneur and film producer, and a dance teacher. Not just a jack of all trades, but a master of them all. That is, apart from as a film producer. The horror film, ‘Dear Dead Delilah’, which he produced in 1972, was a resounding flop.
Jack’s early career
He’d started his music production career in a home-made studio built in a friend’s garage in Memphis in 1954, shortly before landing a job with Sam Phillips at Sun Studios. While working with Sam, he got to know Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Jerry lee Lewis, and other artists who were on Sam Phillips’ roster. He became best friends with Johnny Cash, a friendship that lasted until Johnny’s death in 2003.
While working at Sam’s studios, Jack was responsible for recording many songs which went on to become classics. They included Jerry Lee Lewis’s famous, ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On’ and ‘Great Balls of Fire’ and Johnny Cash’s, ‘I Walk the Line’.
His move to Nashville
Later, after moving to Nashville, he discovered Charley Pride and was responsible for introducing him to RCA, launching his career. Over the years he produced for many other well known singers, far too long a list to mention here.
With his sense of humour and appetite for fun, Cowboy Jack was a loveable rouge who broke all the rules of Nashville’s convention for the music business. One of his most famous quotes was, “If we’re not having fun, then we’re not doing our job”. Having fun was everything to him.
Finding out more about Cowboy
To get a fuller picture of who Jack was, and his achievements, you need to look at his website at http://www.cowboyjackclement.com/. But this story is about how I came to meet him and how I became a regular visitor at his home and recording studios, The Cowboy Arms Hotel and Recording Spa. Following my first two visits in 2007, I visited him at least once a year … nine or ten times in all. The last time I saw him was two months before his death in August 2013. I knew then that I wouldn’t be seeing him again.
So why did I want to meet Cowboy Jack?
After getting the record of ‘That Little Tune’, I tried to contact Cowboy Jack to find out more about the band and the artists playing on that recording. After a lot of searching, I eventually found the e-mail address and phone number for his studios. My early efforts to contact him by e-mail failed, as my e-mails kept bouncing. I learnt later that their ISP didn’t like mine. When I phoned his studios, my call was answered by his colleague, Chance Martin.
Chance and I spoke several times over the coming weeks, trying, unsuccessfully, to solve the internet problem. By this time it was early 2007 and I mentioned to Chance that I was going to be visiting Nashville that April. I asked him if I’d be able to come and visit Cowboy Jack. He said certainly I could, and he told me to phone when I got into town. I phoned soon after reaching Nashville and Chance said to me, ‘Come on down’. So, as I hadn’t got a car at that point, I called a taxi and headed down to the Cowboy Arms Hotel.
The Cowboy Arms Hotel and Recording Spa
The taxi drew up in front of a beautiful, large, brick-built house, in a quiet neighbourhood about three miles out of Nashville. I walked up the front path and knocked on the door and was welcomed in by Chance. After a short chat, he took me through to Cowboy Jack’s office.
Jack was seated at a large, wooden desk. On it was strewn an assortment of paperwork, piles of CDs, a pad of foolscap paper, dozens of pens and other assorted items. A large toy toucan on a perch, sat on one side of the desk and, on the other side, there was an ashtray which looked like a mini toilet … typical, as I found out later, of Jack’s sense of humour. On the wall behind him, part of his large collection of guitars and other instruments were hanging on display. At one side of the room, opposite the windows, were two enormous speakers and a huge TV screen.
Jack welcomed me in and invited to me to sit on the chair facing him across the desk, before offering me a glass of his delicious home-made lemonade. He was keen to know why I had come to see him. I explained about how I’d found ‘That Little Tune’ and that I was curious to know more about the Dixie Doodle Construction Company and the players in this group. He reached for his foolscap pad and, in large handwriting, he wrote out all the details about the group … their names and which instruments they’d played. He also included information about his radio programme on Sirius Radio. Other things he gave me were a DVD made from some of his home movies, and copies of ‘That Little Tune’ and a similar instrumental, by the same group, called ‘Feet’. This latter tune is featured on the intro to his website http://www.cowboyjackclement.com/.
My tour of the studios
Next, he took me on a tour of his home and his studios. The first floor (ground floor) had his offices, work rooms, dining room and kitchen, along with his private living quarters. Upstairs, his studios spanned the width of the house. The stairs and stairwell leading to his studios were painted sky blue, with white clouds. Once up there, we came into this huge room, with other smaller rooms off it. There was an enormous mixing desk, where Jack’s sound engineer was working. Other rooms were used for recording, housing an array of equipment and instruments, or were used for storing archived recordings. It was fascinating to see.
Downstairs again, and we went into a room with a large table, round which a number of people were seated. Chance had a desk to one side, with a large computer. On this, he did photo editing for Jack’s website and created promotional material for the company, Clement-Vision. He also helped prepare the weekly radio show that he and Cowboy hosted on Sirius Radio. Many people would drop by at Jack’s house regularly, to chat and share with each other what they were doing. It was very much an open-door policy there. I was told, that if someone was a regular visitor for three months or more, they were given a key to the front door. In the next room, Jack’s son, Niles, was working and I had a brief chat with him.
My unexpected mini-tour of Music Row
One girl who called into the Cowboy Arms that day was CJ Flannigan, webmaster and photographer for Cowboy Jack. When it was time for me to leave, after a three-hour visit, she kindly offered me a ride back to my hotel in her car. This ride took a circuitous route, as she took me on a mini-tour of some of Music Row’s historic buildings. It was difficult to take everything in as there was so much to see in such a short space of time.
My next trip to the Cowboy Arms was only two days later. In my rush to get there the first time, I forgot my camera, having left it at the hotel. So a friend took me back there to get my photos. But more on that visit in the next episode of my story.