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Mix Interview: Cowboy Jack Clement


Anyone who would criticize Nashville for safeness or homogeneity has never spent any time around Jack Clement’s Cowboy Arms & Recording Spa studio at his Belmont Boulevard home. The Cowboy (who hates horses, by the way) is a legend whose influence has spread over a half-century of American music. He was present at Sun Records, putting the tacks in Jerry Lee Lewis’ piano and recording some of the early classics of rock ‘n’ roll. He wrote songs recorded by a bevy of music heroes. He discovered Charley Pride and Don Williams, and he produced what many believe to be the greatest album of Nashville’s “Outlaw” movement: Waylon Jennings’ Dreamin’ My Dreams.

He has helmed sessions for Johnny Cash, Louis Armstrong, U2, Roy Orbison and hundreds of others. And he has been a mentor to a younger generation of producers and engineers that includes Allen Reynolds, Garth Fundis, Dave Ferguson and Jim Rooney. As illustrated by the recent documentary DVD, Shakespeare Was a Big George Jones Fan: Cowboy Jack Clement’s Home Movies, there are no more than two degrees of separation between the Cowboy and Cash, Jones, John Prine, Nanci Griffith, Townes Van Zandt, Mac Wiseman and any number of other luminaries of American rock, country, folk, bluegrass and Americana music.

Clement with Johnny Cash: What were they singing?

Photo: Marty Stuart

That he’s done all this while having more fun than anyone in town is no mystery to those who have heard him proclaim, “We’re in the fun business. If we’re not having fun, we’re not doing our job.” Recently, Clement sat in his office — amidst priceless Martin and Gibson guitars, a photo that Cash took of the Cowboy at a pool, dozens of little battery-powered trinkets that make flatulent noises and stacks of CDs — and talked about some highlights from his unique and colorful life in music.

What was your first recording production?
The first thing I produced was a record with Billy Lee Riley, back in Memphis.

What made you think you could produce a Billy Lee Riley record?
Well, I thought he was really good. I’d been practicing on a Magnacorder, which was considered professional before Ampex came out. And I went with Billy Lee down to where they had a little room at WNPS, which was the Top 40 station in Memphis. We were there three or four hours and cut two sides the first time. One was a country song. I took it to a distributor there, a guy at Music Sales, and we were going to press it up. He was the one who told me we should get Sam Phillips to master it. He liked the rock ‘n’ roll side, but he thought we should put one more rock ‘n’ roll thing on the other side. So we went back and did one more side, and that’s what I took to Sam to have it mastered.

At the time, I was working in the hardware department at a building supply place, and I hated it. But I was off every Wednesday. I dropped the song off to Sam one Wednesday and went back the next Wednesday to pick it up. Sam was sitting up in the front office. Nobody else was there. He said, “Come back to the control room. I want to talk to you. That’s the first rock ‘n’ roll anybody’s brought me around here.” He offered to put it on Sun and pay us a penny a record. He said, “What do you do?” I said I had been going to Memphis State but that now I was working at the building supply place. I said, “I don’t like it very much.” He said, “Maybe you ought to come to work for me.” I said, “Maybe I should.” And I did — exactly two weeks later.

Was it an easy transition for you to begin working the board at Sun?
It wasn’t hard. At Sun, we only had six inputs. An old radio board. Rotary pots. No EQ. No echo sends or anything. If you wanted to have echo on something, you had to have two mics, and it took up two of the slots and you’d run one through a separate tape recorder. I hadn’t been there very long before I talked him into getting a mic splitter where we could have a side thing where you could put echo on five mics. But it was a very basic system. He didn’t have an echo chamber — just slapback, running at 7½ ips or 15. I would always run it at 15. At 7½, it was too much delay. One of the first people he let me work with was Roy Orbison.

How close is what we hear on those records to what you’d hear in the room while the recordings went down?
Not close. I wasn’t thinking about getting a reality; I was trying to get a sound. I wasn’t trying to get it like it sounded in the room; I was trying to get it better. Sam came in one day and did some tape editing, and I thought that was really cute. He didn’t bother with a crayon or anything to mark. He’d just stick them scissors down there and snip it. He showed me how to do it. After that, I did a lot of splicing. And it was mono. If we wanted to overdub, we’d have to go mono to mono. I’d have three tape machines going: one for the echo, one for the original and one for the new material.

Did anyone really bowl you over the first time you heard them at Sun?
Well, Jerry Lee Lewis. He was only doing country when he came in, but it was great. And I made a tape of it. Later I played it for Sam and he flipped, said, “Get that guy in here.” Couple weeks later, he came in. It was on a Monday. I told him if he’d come back Thursday, I’d have some musicians and we’d make some tapes. So that’s what happened. Sam was driving to Nashville that day for the annual DJ Convention.

We came up with “Crazy Arms” kind of by accident. We were about to quit on that Thursday, and I said, “You know ‘Crazy Arms’ by Ray Price?” He said, “I know a little of it.” I said, “Let’s cut it.” Nothing in the room but piano and drums, and we cut the thing. And that was it. I’d come up with a neat way of miking that little Spinet piano. It had thumbtacks in it. And normally you would mike it from the top, but I took the plate off from the bottom and stuck the mic underneath. And that’s the sound you heard on “Whole Lotta Shakin’” and a whole lot of other stuff. When I put the tape on and started playing and piano comes on, before it got to the singing, Sam said, “Now, I can sell that.” This was in October of 1956.

Were the tacks already in the piano before you got there?
No, I put them in on the hammers. Gives a pingy effect. It’s not something I invented, but it’s something I used. It sounded good, especially when I miked the piano from the bottom.

I can’t imagine walking into a studio and recording “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.” What do you do after you put something like that on tape? Do you open a bottle? Do you go find a hamburger?
Fact is, we cut that and didn’t even listen back to it at first. We had been working on “It’ll Be Me,” a song I wrote. I got tired of it and walked out, and said, “Let’s do something else for a while and we’ll come back to this.” His bass player, J.W. Brown, said, “Jerry, do that song we’ve been doing on the road that everybody likes so much.” I said, “Let me record it.” I turned the machine on, sat down, they did “Whole Lotta Shakin’.” One take. No dry run. Then we did “It’ll Be Me.” Then later on that night, we listened to “Whole Lotta Shakin’,” and that time we kept listening, all night. Sam came in the next day and I played it for him, and he said, “Get that sucker ready; we’ll put it out.”

Did you have a sense that you were creating history?
No, but I knew I was really enjoying myself. I do remember at least one time Sam said, “There’ll come a time in years to come when they’ll take these songs and put them in Broadway shows and in movies.” So he had a vision.

Was it tough working under him? Being number two?
Not really. Only sometimes he’d kind of take credit for something I did. They didn’t put anybody’s name on it as producer. No, we got along pretty good. I thought he was full of shit most of the time, and he was. But then he had his moments of crazy, mixed-up genius.

Was the building itself important at Sun or could you have easily replicated all of this at some room down the street?
You know, Sam was always talking about how the studio had a sound, and I didn’t fall for it. But working with U2 years later at Sun, I went back and realized what it was: It was kind of a presence thing. A bunch of leakage is what made it. But it was good leakage, not tubby-sounding leakage. It had a natural sound to it. With U2, they cut at Sun on a 12-track Akai. That’s all they had at the studio at that point. They needed us to transfer it onto a 24-track. So Dave Ferguson, who I had working for me, talked ’em into letting us take it here. What was neat about it is you could sit in my studio years later and there had been enough mics up so that we could listen to all the parts of the room at Sun.

When you left Sun, were you certain you wanted to stay in music?
Oh yeah, I started a record label. I had writer royalties coming in from “It’ll Be Me” and “Teenage Queen.” So I had some money. I built a neat studio down in Beaumont, Texas. We found a store building, and I went in and gutted it, cleared it out and started over. Put in a nice studio. Had a radio board similar to what I had at Sun. But we cut a hit record within six months: “Patches.” Had about nine splices in it, as I recall. And we had a real echo chamber, back behind the control room. I talked Allen Reynolds into shellacking it. Shouldn’t have done that without ventilation.

You loved your time in Beaumont. Why would you leave that and go to Nashville?
I was wanting to expand, go multitrack. Bill Hall owned the place with me and he didn’t want to take the chance. And Dickey Lee and Allen Reynolds moved back to Memphis. I stayed another year, but didn’t do much more than write and demo songs. So when I came to Nashville, I had 30 songs with me that I’d demo’d. I got most of ’em cut. Things like “Just Between You and Me,” which was Charley Pride’s first Top 5 record.

How important was it back then to know the technical part of producing?
You had to know a few things, but there wasn’t much to it. If you did something wrong, you could hear it. If you overrode something, you’d hear distortion. If it wasn’t up enough, you’d hear leakage.

Do records sound better now because of the digital stuff?
I don’t know, sometimes they do. But I don’t like anything I hear on the radio, so I guess the answer’s “no.” Back then, it was, “Bring me something different.” Now if somebody hears something different, it’s always, “That’s too different.” But I haven’t changed my basic approach to anything. I’ll use a little EQ, but not to fix things so much as to get a sound. Within the last year, I’ve re-equipped my studio with Pro Tools HD and all that. We have the tape machine, but I only use it for archiving. We could use it, but why bother? I don’t have any problem with digital. Something sounds the same way coming back as it does going in.

Your “Rules for Recording” have become somewhat famous.
Let’s see, what were the rules? Be on time; that ain’t changed. Be alert. Don’t bring or invite anyone. Marty Stuart got fired one time for breaking the first three in a row. He was late, he was stoned and he brought somebody. I hired him back later, of course. I have rules, but I’ve never had a formula.

You’ve said the problem with singers is they won’t show you their secret voice. What does that mean?
They don’t know they’ve got a secret voice. They’re always looking for something else, trying to sing through their nose like all the rest of them people. They don’t understand singing, that’s what it is. They may have good voices, but they don’t understand what the singer’s supposed to do. Seems to me like people make too big a deal out of singing. They’re trying to make up a voice. If they’d just let go and be themselves and not think about it so much and get all inhibited. But Charley [Pride] was one of the easiest I’ve ever had to work with because he would take direction. And he had the pipes. I’ll never forget the first time I heard him when we went into RCA Studio that first time. They had these hyped-up speakers anyway. When I heard that voice, and that bottom end — I’ll never forget that. Balls, man, you know?

Speaking of voices, do you tune vocals in the studio?
I have never done that, except for very minor stuff. We’ll move things around, but I don’t do much in the way of tuning. If something needs tuning, I cut it over. They overdo it now, you know. They get it sounding perfect, and it turns out that perfect equates to shit.

You mentioned David Ferguson earlier. He is one of many producers and engineers who you have mentored. There’s been Ferg, Allen Reynolds, Jim Rooney, Garth Fundis. Do you know when you meet these people that they’re going to be good at this?
Not really. Ferg was my part-time errand boy to start with. I found out he could do a little carpentering and a little painting, but pretty soon he started showing real interest in running the board. He learned it inside-out. He didn’t learn the basics. He started in the middle. But soon he was up there cutting stuff, and it sounded good. My place has always been a training ground. I like the fact that people can come here and learn. Same way I was with Sam.

READ: Must Play
December 2003Mix interview

READ: Must Play
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