The Happy Trails of Cowboy Jack Clement

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“Cowboy” Jack Clement was the lucky penny in “The Million Dollar Quartet.”

If you like the hit rock musical, enjoy John Prine and dance to polka music, you should raise a toast to Mr. Clement.

Mr. Clement arranged the Mariachi horns on Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” and cut a live album with Polka legend Frankie Yankovic.

Mr. Clement loved happy music.

The country music icon died of liver cancer Thursday morning in his Nashville home. He was 82. His death came four months after he learned he was going to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Mr. Clement was the first to record Jerry Lee Lewis when he was an engineer-producer at Sun Records between 1956 and 1959.

Jerry Lee strolled into the studio unannounced.

It was the last thing he ever did unannounced.

A historic bridge between rockabilly and rock n’ roll was about to be built.

“The receptionist comes back and tells me there’s a guy here who says he plays piano like Chet Atkins,” Mr. Clement told me in an engaging 1986 afternoon I spent at his Cowboy Arms Hotel and Recording Spa on the near west side of Nashville. “Well, I was a big Chet Atkins fan. I even had one of his records on the music system at Arthur Murray’s (where Clement was also a dance instructor.) It wasn’t all that danceable, but I made them leave it on there. People were fox-trottin’ to Chet Atkins.”

This was the beauty of Mr. Clement.

One story always led to another.

He continued, “Anyway, Jerry Lee came on back and sure enough, he played like Chet. So I asked him to sing, and he was great, but it was real, real country. I loved it, but the bottom was ready to drop out of country.”

Mr. Clement encouraged Lewis to learn rock n’ roll. He taped the hard country session and passed it along to Sam Phillips, founder and president of Sun.

Lewis returned three weeks later with his composition “End of the Road.” A guitar-bass-drums band was quickly assembled, which included Billy Lee Riley on guitar. “There was nothing on the record but a (small upright) spinet piano,” Mr. Clement said. “I had thumbtacks on the hammers and miked from down under. That’s what you heard on ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On’ and ‘Crazy Arms’ (a then-obscure Ray Price tune)–nothing but the piano and the drums and no bass. Sam was out of town, and when he came back the next week, I played him the tape that started with ‘Crazy Arms.’ He heard Jerry Lee play, he heard the intro and before he got to the voice he stopped the machine and said, ‘I know I can sell that’.” Then, when he heard the vocals, he said, “Can I sell that!”

Mr. Clement was credited with contributing to the musical and technical end of Sun Records in the late 1950’s while Phillips nurtured the feel. He recorded the seminal tracks of Carl Perkins and Roy Orbison. A playful spirit steered Mr. Clement throughout his life.

“I was into being cute,” he responded to any notion of technical prowess. “I liked playing with the sound, while Sam wanted to hear more beat and more bass.”

He wrote the Johnny Cash hit “I Guess Things Happen That Way”

He co-produced “Angel of Harlem” and “When Love Comes To Town” for U2.

He was the subject of the recent documentary “Shakespeare Was a Big George Jones Fan: Cowboy Jack’s Home Movies.”

Mr. Clement was born in 1931 in Whitehaven, Tenn. near Memphis. He was lassoed with the nickname “Cowboy” for his role in a radio show while attending Memphis State University–but he did not like horses. He moved to Washington, D.C. for a stint in the service. After his discharge, Mr. Clement formed a bluegrass band that barnstormed the East and the South in the early 1950s.

Mr. Clement returned to Memphis for a visit when he met a friend who was an Arthur Murray dance instructor. “I had never danced a lick in my life, but I had been on the Marine Corps drill team and I had an incredible sense of rhythm,” Mr. Clement told me. “So I went to an Arthur Murray training class, and six weeks later, I had gone from a non-dancer to a dance instructor. And I’ve been dancing ever since.

“In fact, when I had a control room window, that’s how I used to produce. There’s only so many times you can tell somebody, ‘That’s good, but let’s do it again.’ If they’re really doing it right, I’m dancing my ass off.”

Mr. Clement smiled and got up off his chair.

He adjusted his trademark Hawaiian shirt. He then began to tango across his office floor. “That lets them know if they sing a little better, I’ll dance a little better,” he said with a smile. “I always go as far as I can and then a little bit beyond.”

His sense of reach and understanding touched every corner of America.

A tribute concert to the dying Mr. Clement last winter drew video salutes from first lady Michelle Obama, President Bill Clinton and pop superstar Taylor Swift as well as live performances from fans like Kris Kristofferson (Mr. Clement told Kristofferson to move to Nashville), Dan Auerbach from the Black Keys and John Prine (who was in Ireland at the time of Mr. Clement’s death.) Mr. Clement was in bad shape, but he took the stage at his own concert to cover the Rolling Stones’ “No Expectations.”

In the mid-2000s Mr. Clement introduced Prine to Mac Wiseman, co-founder of the Foggy Mountain Boys with Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. Wiseman and Prine wound up collaborating on the 2007 album “Standard Songs for Average People.”

Mr. Clement kept harping about Wiseman’s 1969 novelty hit “If I Had Johnny’s Cash and Charley’s Pride,” and would sing it to Prine as they drove around Nashville together. Prine was also a guest vocaliist on Mr. Clement’s polka project. In 1965 Mr. Clement helped break Nashville’s color barrier by paying for an RCA Recording session to then-unknown former Negro League baseball player Pride.

John Prine at Jack Clement Tribute Concert, Jan. 30, 2013–Nashville

Prine’s younger brother Billy spent most of Thursday at Mr. Clement’s home.

“Jack was the most generous artist I ever met,” said Prine, who appears with his hard rockabilly band 9 p.m. Aug. 16 at FitzGerald’s in Berwyn. “He would share with anybody in his sphere. He loved Shakespeare and he would quote, ‘To be or not to be.’ And that’s pretty much the way he lived his life.”

Prine met Mr. Clement in 1977 when Mr. Clement was producing a John Prine record.

“John ended up taking his songs back to Chicago,” Prine said. “The record never came out. Then (Steve) Goodman produced ‘Bruised Orange.’ But I had first heard of Jack through Waylon Jennings’ “Dreaming My Dreams.” (Jennings first number one album, produced in 1975 by Mr. Clement.) My mother loved that album.”

Mr. Clement’s dreamy nature endeared him to generations of fans. He hosted a weekly show on the Outlaw Country station on Sirius/XM. He e-maiiled a monthly newsletter with his favorite country music star recipes and tributes to fallen roots music stars.

He was always wondering about the next frontier.

Space travel was one of Mr. Clement’s many visions. He wanted to build a spaceship.

“It would be called the Alpha Centauri because that’s the closest star to Earth,” he told me on an August day in 1986. “It’s only 3.8 light years away. And if I don’t get to outer space, I wouldn’t be the first one not to get to outer space.”

Safe travels to Jack Clement.

He was the closest star to Earth.

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