“Cowboy” Jack Clement, maybe the most important figure in country music that most fans don’t know, died Thursday at his home in Nashville after battling liver cancer. He was 82.
Clement was one of the most revered musicians, producers, songwriters, engineers and all-around sages in country music since the 1950s, a man who was sought out in later years by U2 and other rock acts for his creative input.
He was the first person to record Jerry Lee Lewis and Roy Orbison, arranged the signature mariachi horn part for Johnny Cash’s original recording of “Ring of Fire,” persuaded George Jones to record “She Thinks I Still Care” and produced an album considered possibly the finest to come out of the 1970s “outlaw” movement: Waylon Jennings’ “Dreaming My Dreams.”
Kris Kristofferson has often credited Clement as the one who may have persuaded him to make Nashville his home and start his career as a songwriter there.
“Cowboy Jack Clement was the first person I met in Nashville, while I was still in uniform in the Army,” Kristofferson told The Times by e-mail on Thursday. “One of the funniest, most generous people on the planet.
“He introduced me to Johnny Cash by showing him a letter my mother had written disowning me for resigning my commission to be a songwriter (which included a disparaging reference to my respect for Johnny Cash),” Kristofferson wrote. “To me Jack will always be the embodiment of the Nashville songwriter’s love of the song, regardless of who the writer was. He’ll be sorely missed by anyone who knew him.”
Clement’s idiosyncratic career was examined and celebrated in the acclaimed 2005 documentary “Shakespeare Was a Big George Jones Fan: Cowboy Jack Clement’s Home Movies,” which featured interviews with Jones as well as Bono, Cash, Jennings, Dolly Parton and others woven in with actual home movies.
Jack Henderson Clement was born April 8, 1931, in Whitehaven, Tenn., just south of Memphis. As a songwriter he may be best known as the composer of “Guess Things Happen That Way,” a No. 1 hit for Johnny Cash that held the top spot on the country chart for eight weeks in 1958. He also wrote “Just Someone I Used to Know,” which Parton and her early mentor and duet partner Porter Wagoner turned into a Top 5 country hit in 1969.
For U2, he produced “When Love Comes to Town” and “Angel of Harlem.” Clement also did the first recordings for Charley Pride, a former baseball player who also sang. Clement’s song “Just Between You and Me” gave Pride his first Top 10 country hit in 1966, and led to Pride’s role helping break down racial barriers in country music.
Clement’s home studio, known around Nashville as The Cowboy Arms & Recording Spa, drew most of the big names in country music and many in rock as well at one time or another.
“Among music types, dreamers, poets and clowns,” colleague Peter Cooper writes in his obituary in the Nashville Tennessean, “keys to Mr. Clement’s house were as common as guitar picks, and as valued as gold records.”
He was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in April, along with Bobby Bare and Kenny Rogers, but did not live to attend the induction ceremony slated for later this year.
In January Clement was the honoree at an all-star concert at Nashville’s War Memorial Auditorium. Participants included Kristofferson, Pride, Vince Gill, Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell, John Prine, Jakob Dylan, The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach and others. The night also featured video messages from Bill Clinton, First Lady Michelle Obama, Bono and Taylor Swift (one of the new generation country stars Clement admired).
A full obituary will follow at follow at latimes.com/obits.
Here’s a video of Clement performing his song “Just a Girl I Used To Know”:
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