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26 years later, Cowboy Jack Clement finally returns

By Ken Burke, October 2004

I Imagine being sung the following verse.

"It's called a taproom in Pennsylvania, in Manhattan it's a plush lined club. It's just a gin mill in old Chicago, and London it's a bloomin' pub. They serve you cocktails in ritzy Newport and its boilermakers in Squedunk. But when you stagger from the bar, no matter where you are, you're just plain old-fashioned drunk."

Such are the delightful consequences of speaking with legendary producer Cowboy Jack Clement. You see Clement, discoverer of Jerry Lee Lewis and Charley Pride; hit-songwriter for the likes of Johnny Cash, George Jones and Bobby Bare; freelance studio guru for Waylon Jennings and U2; and part-time vocalist, is a 72-year-old genius with the free associative capabilities of a college frat boy.

One minute you'll be treated to a spellbinding reminiscence of great historical importance, the next he'll be singing his favorite verse from "The Taproom Polka." It all fits together somehow.

However, the random nature of his creativity does not always mesh with the demands of musical productivity. As a result, Dualtone's "Guess Things Happen That Way" is just Cowboy Jack's second solo release in 26 years.

When asked why it took so long, Clement, speaking from his Nashville home studio, is direct and unapologetic.

"Because I was doing a lot of other stuff, and I never was a full-time singer anyway, although I always sang. But I don't know - it took me that long to get back around to it."

Then, without missing a beat, Clement reveals, "I had a label come along and ask me to cut 'em a record. So, I had a project, and I had a studio sitting here in my house anyway. So, why not?"

The resultant album showcases the Tennessee-born singer-songwriter's ability as a '40s style crooner blessed with an edge of country irony.

"Well, yeah," responds Clement to the observation, "I liked Bing Crosby, Perry Como and Dean Martin was my favorite. I guess he's everybody's favorite crooner."

At his peak, Martin effortlessly mixed country with Big Band pop and Italian romance numbers.

"That's the way I like to do it," he chimes. "This band I've got, we play stuff like 'Brazil.' (He then sings the melody.) That's a samba. 'Brazil's not on the album, but we do it when we do these live shows. And, there's a polka on my record, really, called 'Drinkin' Carrot Juice.'"

According to Clement's Dualtone press kit, the song "Drinkin' Carrot Juice" precipitated his second divorce from his first wife.

"First of all, it tastes fairly good," Clement explains. "It's sweet. It tastes kind of like a milkshake if you don't think about it much. The problem with it is, you have to get these carrots, cut the ends off and scrub 'em real good because you don't peel 'em. You want the nutrients from the skin. But the problem with carrot juice is that it needs to be made fresh - preferably once a day. Anyway, I got my wife into making carrot juice, and she hated it! Then I wrote a song about it, and I think that's what kind of did it. I mean, we were having problems anyway, but that was something that I remember from the break up."

For Clement, making music is about creative collaboration and unexpected musical connections. Certainly the most surprising collaboration included comes via Clement and controversial Democratic Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia. (Miller nominated President Bush at the Republican National Convention.)

"Well, me and him are musical buddies," Clement says of the man who betrayed his political party. "We don't talk politics. We talk about George Jones and Waylon, me. He's a big fan of mine. He bought my first album when it came out 26 years ago. It's his favorite country album of all time. Anyway, I met him after he had been in office for about a month. He was lieutenant governor of Georgia about 15 years prior to that. So, he knew his way around there. See, he didn't want to get back into politics - he was retired. (The late Sen. Paul) Coverdell died, and he agreed to take over and run. He was happily ensconced in his little pad - and that's what that song is about. It's called 'Every Place I've Ever Been (Is On My Way Back Home).' It was his idea."

"The first thing that got me about him was - I was there to sing for a bunch of legislators. I was sitting at the table next to him, right by the stage, and I started talking to him about being governor. I said, 'Well, how do you like it so far?' He said, 'Well, I could do without it.' (Laughs.) He had me from then on."

Unlike most singer-songwriters, Clement didn't especially feel the need to maximize his potential profit by performing only songs that he wrote or has the publishing on.

"I wasn't trying to think about any of that, y'know? I was just trying to sing the song and make my voice fit in there like a trombone. It's got to be part of the band. It's an instrument. I try to keep it in there so I don't have to crowd it out too much with a bunch of other stuff. But I like to put together a program and hit the songs that fit."

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