“Cowboy” Jack Clement, a producer, engineer, songwriter and beloved figure who helped birth rock ‘n’ roll and push country music into modern times, died Thursday morning at his home. He was 82.
Dub Cornett, a close friend of Clement’s, said his hospice nurse confirmed Clement passed away surrounded by family after declining treatment for liver cancer.
His death came just months after he learned he would be joining the Country Music Hall of Fame, a fitting tip of the cowboy hat to the man whose personal story is entwined with the roots of modern music like few others. He was to be inducted at a ceremony later this fall.
At the top of his official Country Music Hall of Fame bio was one of Clement’s favorite quotes: “We’re in the fun business. If we’re not having fun, we’re not doing our job.”
Clement could claim as much fun as anyone after a colorful career that left him a beloved figure in Nashville, known as much for his colorful personality and storytelling ability as his rather formidable place in music history.
A tribute benefit concert to Clement last winter drew video salutes from First Lady Michelle Obama, former President Bill Clinton and Taylor Swift, as well as performances and appearances by an all-star lineup of fans that included Kris Kristofferson, John Prine, Dan Auerbach from The Black Keys and Jakob Dylan.
Clement’s career included stops in Memphis at Sun Records as an engineer for Sam Phillips, where he discovered Jerry Lee Lewis and recorded greats like Carl Perkins and Roy Orbison. He also came through Nashville, where he was a close collaborator of Johnny Cash, Charley Pride and many of his fellow hall of fame members, including fellow 2013 inductee Bobby Bare.
His impact was more than tangential. As the hall of fame noted, he was a catalyst who always seemed to bring the best out of those he worked with.
For instance, he convinced Lewis to put aside the country material he brought to Sun Records and stretch out with something a little more upbeat. The result? “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On,” which soon hit radio like napalm.
And how about this? He convinced Kristofferson to move to town, changing just about everything in Music City.
He’s also the guy who came up with the idea of putting Mariachi horns on Cash’s “Ring of Fire,” transforming a fairly sedate love song into an ascendant pop culture moment that would endure time.
“He was the maestro, the ringleader of tomfoolery, and I know Johnny Cash and Sam Phillips are ready to get back to work now that he’s in heaven,” said Cornett, who produced the benefit concert.
Born in Memphis in 1931, Clement picked up music in his late teens and continued to perform after joining the Marines at 17. He abruptly ended his performance career after making one record in Boston in 1953 and returned home. He picked up the nickname “Cowboy” for his role in a radio show while attending Memphis State and soon built a garage recording studio.
He took the first records he made to Sun to master and was hired on the spot by Phillips. He also served as a producer, engineer and talent scout in Nashville for Chet Atkins during some of country music’s most important years.
Along the way, he boosted George Jones’s career with his composition “She Thinks I Still Care” and had songs recorded by Ray Charles, Waylon Jennings, Tom Jones, Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner and Elvis Presley.
As a producer, he helped break through the color barrier in country music through his discovery of Pride, established Jennings with their work on “Dreaming My Dreams” and touched the legendary careers of Louis Armstrong, Albert Collins, Prine, Townes Van Zandt and Hank Williams Jr., among others.
He also helped mark a turning point in the career of U2, recording their roots tribute “Rattle and Hum.”