Music
2:03 pm
Tue July 15, 2014

The Cowboy That Wasn't A Cowboy Sings

Originally published on Tue July 15, 2014 2:52 pm

Cowboy Jack Clement, who died in 2013 at age 82, was a prolific producer, songwriter, arranger, and talent scout. He brought Jerry Lee Lewis to Sun Records, helped nurture the career of one of the few black country stars, Charley Pride, and worked on important albums for artists as various as Waylon Jennings and U2.

Jack Clement only made three albums of his own, the last of which is the new For Once and For All. Executive produced by T Bone Burnett, it features Clement performing many of his best-known compositions with help from guest stars including Emmylou Harris, Buddy Miller, Rodney Crowell, and John Prine. Fresh Air rock critic Ken Tucker has a review.

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Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Cowboy Jack Clement, who died last year at age 82, was a prolific producer, songwriter, arranger and talent scout. He brought Jerry Lee Lewis to Sun Records, helped nurture the career of one of the few black country stars, Charley Pride, and worked on important albums for artists as various as Waylon Jennings and U2.

Jack Clement only made three albums of his own, the last of which is the new "For Once And For All." Executive produced by T Bone Burnett, it features Clement performing many of his best-known compositions with help from guest stars, including Emmylou Harris, Buddy Miller, Rodney Crowell and John Prine.

Rock critic Ken Tucker has a review.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOT LEAVIN' ON HER MIND")

COWBOY JACK CLEMENT: (Singing) She don't hold and kiss me like she did one time. I think my sweet baby's got leaving on her mind. Longer I know her, the more I can tell. My darling's not happy with me. Longer I know that I know her too well, less love in her eyes I see.

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: Cowboy Jack Clement - the cowboy nickname was always something of a joke; he once said, cowboy boots make my feet hurt - was a colorful character, as well as a first-rate songwriter and producer. Clement told music historian Peter Guralnick that Shakespeare and P.G. Woodhouse were influences on him as significant as any country or rock 'n roll artist. And since he wrote tunes for Johnny Cash called "Dirty Old Egg-Sucking Dog" and "Flushed From The Bathroom Of Your Heart," I'm inclined to believe him. He also wrote some of the finest pure country songs ever, such as this one.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JUST BETWEEN YOU AND ME")

COWBOY JACK CLEMENT: (Singing) So I feel so blue sometimes I want to die. And so I've got a broken heart so what? They say that time will heal all wounds in mice and men. And I know that someday I'll forget and love again. But just between you and me, I got my doubts about it. Just between you and me, you're too much to forget.

TUCKER: That's "Just Between You And Me," a hit for Charley Pride in 1966, sung here by its author.

As a producer, Jack Clement was never much of a singer, but I think that's a good example of how to deliver the maximum emotion and ideas in a song, with minimal technical equipment. There's a fine documentary about Clement called "Shakespeare Was A Big George Jones Fan" that I highly recommend. You can come away from that film and after hearing much of Clement's work with the impression that he rarely dwelt on the dark side. Then you hear a song of his such as "Let The Chips Fall."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LET THE CHIPS FALL")

COWBOY JACK CLEMENT: (Singing) I'm finding that I'm spending most of my time wondering where she goes the rest the time. But tonight I will find out for once and for all. Tonight I will follow her and let the chips fall. So let the chips fall.

TUCKER: "Let The Chips Fall" is essentially a murder ballad sung in the voice of a husband who's setting out to prove his wife has been unfaithful to him. And recording it in his 80s, near months before his death, Clement gave that song its proper chill of mortality.

There's another kind of beautiful starkness to be heard on "Baby Is Gone" with backing on guitar by this album's executive producer, T Bone Burnett.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BABY IS GONE")

COWBOY JACK CLEMENT: (Singing) The world goes around and the young men get old. The people next door are all down with the cold. The stars are in the heavens, that's where they belong. They don't shine in my world since baby is gone. If I were a writer, I'd write me a song but all I could say is, my baby is gone.

TUCKER: Clement worked as Sam Phillips' chief engineer in the early days of Sun Records in Memphis and convinced the owner to sign a wild man from Mississippi, Jerry Lee Lewis. Clement was good buddies with Johnny Cash, whose own wild behavior at various stages of Cash's career was the sort of restless anarchy Clement instinctively understood. Given Clement's genre-bending gadfly instincts, you could make an argument that he helped invent the kind of hybrid music that is now the radio format called Americana. Two stalwarts of that genre, Rodney Crowell and Marty Stuart, sing harmony on the course of one of Clement's most gorgeous, heart-broken lover ballads, "I Know One."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I KNOW ONE")

COWBOY JACK CLEMENT: (Singing) When all your loves have ended when all your friends have flown, who will be around to want you when all your loves have gone? Only a fool would do it after the way you done, but how many fools would have you? I know one. This fool keeps wondering why you fell in love at all. But you might need this fool around, in case you fall.

TUCKER: The legacy of Cowboy Jack Clement isn't going to rest on this album. He'll remain best remembered in versions of his songs sung by Johnny Cash, Charley Pride and Waylon Jennings. But as a farewell tip of the hat, this album called "For Once And For All" offers a goodbye that's at once jaunty and contemplative - just the sort of mixed message Jack Clement liked to send out into the world.

GROSS: Ken Tucker reviewed Jack Clement's final album "For Once And For All," which was released today.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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