This is the talk I gave at the beginning of the Tribute to Cowboy Jack Clement at War Memorial Auditorium in Nashville the other night.
It was an incandescent evening of real music and true feeling (the reverse phrasing works just as well), pulled together in the best Tom Sawyerish, “You can’t imagine how much fun it is to whitewash this fence” fashion by Dub Cornett and David “Ferg” Ferguson. You can go elsewhere to read about all the highlights, musical, magical, and emotional – or you can just wait for the movie. Suffice it to say that at end of the evening, Jack, who in the face of serious illness has declared that he is “choosing music over medicine,” performed one of the most achingly beautiful (not to mention uplifting) sets I have ever seen, beginning with his recorded masterpiece, Sandy Mason’s “When I Dream (I Dream of You),” and including, of course, his rousing version of “Brazil,” along with the same haunting arrangement of “No Expectations” that he sang at Sam Phillips’ memorial service.
I’m going to include a YouTube clip of “When I Dream” here – but unless and until the film of this Tribute concert is released, you should all bombard Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville with demands to see the almost equally emotional performance that they filmed at the Country Music Hall of Fame for their documentary on Jack, which unfortunately didn’t make the final cut. (Don’t bombard them – implore them, at most pester them.)
Anyway, here are my remarks. And I should add, pay close attention to the penultimate paragraph, which T-Bone Burnett followed up on eloquently in his introduction to “Guess Things Happen That Way” toward the end of the show.
“Jack Clement’s not in the Country Music Hall of Fame?
“WHAT THE FUCK!”
I first met Jack almost forty years ago at – where else but The Cowboy Arms Hotel and Recording Spa,on Belmont?
Like most of you, I’m sure, I felt as if I had wandered into some kind of enchanted land, a rich Shakespearean landscape in which Jack intentionally played the role of both king and fool.
Even then I knew one thing: it was a world from which I never wanted to escape. And I never have.
I’m sure you all know Jack’s movie – Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville’s Shakespeare Was a Big George Jones Fan – there’ll be a number of clips from it playing tonight, and it may well be the most purely entertaining movie I’ve ever seen. I don’t know how many times I’ve watched it, several times in the company of Jack, and it has never failed to delight. Sometimes I think it may be the measure not just of the man but of his audience, too – but in some respects (and I probably don’t even need to say this among friends), like all of Jack’s work, it is a deeply serious enterprise.
Like Shakespeare, Jack recognized from the start that if you expect people to pay attention, first they need to be entertained. And I think all of us can attest: along with the music, along with the conceptual art (and believe me, there’s plenty of that), Jack has given us more than our fair share of entertainment over the years.
That’s probably what enabled him to recognize Jerry Lee Lewis’ finer qualities when Sam Phillips’ assistant, Sally Wilbourn, came back to the control room (Sam was out of town at the time) and announced, “There’s a man out there who says he can play ‘Wildwood Flower on piano just like Chet Atkins playing the guitar.”
Do you think Jack could resist that?
“I mean,” he said, “who WOULDN’T want to hear that? And then she brought him back, and he really did sound like Chet Atkins. So I went back in the control room and put on a tape.”
It was that same perspicacious quality – things just tickle Jack, to this day – that helped him see Johnny Cash’s lighter side, not to mention his broader potential appeal. I’m not sure too many people saw John’s lighter side at the time – but Jack saw this man, whom he recognized as a kindred spirit from the start (it was one of the great friendships of both men’s lives), as a pop star, a status that he almost immediately achieved with the “silly little song” that Jack wrote for him, “Ballad of a Teenage Queen” (that’s Jack’s characterization: never forget that Jack, a life-long dévoté of P.G. Wodehouse, is the self-proclaimed King of Silly) as well as more ironic numbers like “Guess Things Happen That Way” and “Ring of Fire,” which Jack arranged and produced (think of those mariachi horns).
It’s undoubtedly how he could recognize without even a second thought not just the remarkable talent that Charley Pride possessed but the unlimited commercial potential. Like Sam Phillips, probably his one true mentor and one of the few people who could match Jack in eccentricity and the determination to exercise his individualism at all times, in all settings, Jack simply didn’t acknowledge categories, and in the end it was the strength of Jack’s belief that persuaded Chet Atkins to take a chance on so unlikely a prospect.
Jack was reciting Shakespeare when I met him, and he was planning his voyage to Alpha Centauri (he’s probably still planning it) – but, you know, it didn’t matter what was the idea of the day (one of Jack’s many visionary concepts, none of which necessarily entailed making money, was MTV – ten years before MTV came into being), it was the profusion of the ideas, the profundity of the ideas that just kept pouring out of Jack’s fertile imagination. His poetic sensibility was constantly at work.
Without meaning in any way to categorize, let me just state it plain. Jack, the most genial of genial fellows (except when he gets into a Hamletty mood) has his enemies. Jack is an enemy of the predictable, he is a fierce foe of convention, he opposes narrowly defined logic and linearity, he disdains the dull, he is bound and determined to defeat expectation – as much as any of his literary or musical heroes, he is committed to conveying hard truths.
But with a difference.
Because Jack, I think more than anyone else in this town – maybe more than anyone else you’ll meet in this life – believes in the spirit of play. He is a kind of holy fool, with the emphasis on both words, in the manner of both Shakespeare and the great Russian literary masters – but maybe with a little more emphasis on humor than some of those Russians. Because Jack has never shied away from – in fact he has embraced – the greater truth of the cosmic pratfall, what he has sometimes referred to as the universal joke. Which is probably best characterized by the highly evolved version of the uplifting reality show (another genre that he pioneered – though the networks may have failed to pick up on the uplifting part) that has been his life.
Jack will tell you he’s been lucky all his life. If all else fails, he always says, Get lucky. I mean, who else breaks into show business by getting himself arrested on Christmas Eve in Jonesboro, Arkansas? Unjustly, I might add – and he would, too. Which led in turn to his meeting Billy Riley, his first major artist, who picked him up hitchhiking back to Memphis on Christmas Day. Which led in fairly short order to his being hired by Sam Phillips. Which led to his being fired by Sam Phillips, another stroke of luck, because it set Jack free to start off down his own highways, byways, and divagations, without ever forsaking his lifelong friendship with Sam. The point is, for Jack luck is just another part of the great Wheel of Life – you simply don’t want to miss your chance to get on it.
Jack said of Sam Phillips: “Elvis was a star, but Sam was the superstar. Because he discovered all them stars. And led them around by the nose.”
That’s a quote.
Well, the same could be said of Jack, except I don’t think he would accept the designation any more than Sam would. Because to Jack – and I don’t mean to get all corny here – it’s always been about family. I mean, you could say community, but I really think it’s the greater intimacy of extended family that means the most to Jack.
The Cowboy Arms was like a clubhouse to which everyone had the key. Johnny Cash, Jack said, had a key one time – but he lost it. But it didn’t really matter, because the doors at the Cowboy Arms were always open.
It would be easy to tick off all of Jack’s manifold accomplishments: the songs, the industry honors, the records sold, the studios built (he’s probably building one right now), all those friendships made and, more important, kept. But that would be kind of missing the point. It was the FUN of it. As he first learned in the Sun studio, if you weren’t doing something different, you weren’t doing anything. And it wasn’t worth doing if it wasn’t big fun.
For Jack, like all true geniuses, life is a continuing adventure and a continuing education. Doesn’t matter if you lose all your money making a horror film that after you’ve finished editing it (which you never did before and never will again), nobody can understand. YOU LEARNED SOMETHING.
You know, I can’t enumerate all the things I’ve learned from Jack.
About grace, humor, honor, feeling, spontaneity – ACTION (you know – the word that Jack calls out from time to time, almost as if to mock the very concept that he is seeking most to promote: the need to be RELAXED if you ever want to accomplish anything).
But most of all it’s just been fun trying to keep up, as I’m sure it has for all of you. And for those of us who might have been just a little faint of heart, Jack has opened up not just new ways of looking at things but new and exciting (which is not to say safe and insured) paths to pursue.
You know, Jack is living testimony to the fact that if you don’t chase fashion, you will never go out of style.
People say – everyone says – that Jack should be in the Country Music Hall of Fame, he should be in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame – and there’s no question that he should. But remember one thing: Jack is in the Cowboy Jack Clement Hall of Fame, and that’s the most important one of all.
And now as Jack might say (even though I know I can’t say it right – well, I’m going to call on Jack’s sidekick, Alamo, here): ACTION!