Cowboy Jack Clement’s Stunning New Posthumous Album, “For Once and for All”

Originally published in the July 28, 2014 issue of Country Weekly magazine. 

The music world lost one of its most unique characters on Aug. 8, 2013, when producer/songwriter/jack-of-all-trades Cowboy Jack Clement succumbed to his battle with liver cancer at the age of 82. The Country Music Hall of Famer’s six-decade career touched numerous key events in musical history, a list to which one could devote an entire issue. 

Though he’s left this life behind, Jack’s legacy continues with the stunning new album For Once and for All, which features Jack singing (beautifully, no less) his own songs and includes guests like Vince Gill, John Prine, Emmylou Harris and Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys. It’s a testament to Jack’s broad influence and ability to bring kindred spirits into his powerful orbit.

“Emmylou Harris said one time, ‘Anybody who’s any good goes through this place eventually,’” recalls Dave “Fergie” Ferguson, who was head engineer for 25 years at Jack’s home studio, Cowboy Arms & Recording Spa, and produced For Once and for All with T Bone Burnett and Matt Sweeney. “You’d go in for coffee in the morning, and you’d let Townes Van Zandt in to have coffee and sober up before he goes home. I didn’t know then how important it was. You know how sometimes you’re having a good time and you don’t know that you’re having a good time until later? That’s kind of like that place was.”

“Waylon Jennings would be there, or Johnny Cash would be there,” agrees singer/songwriter Shawn Camp, who became fast friends with Jack as a young man in Nashville. Jack referred to him as “The Boy Wonder.” “You just never know who was going to be walking through the doors. Cowboy always seemed to attract that kind of folks. The crazy ones are the cool ones, because they always brought a different perspective on everything. Cowboy was open to that and wanted to be part of that. Everybody seemed to want to follow him.” 

Music industry executive John Grady, who heads up IRS Records—the label releasing For Once and for All—noticed the same thing in his encounters with Jack. “The whole room always stopped when Jack walked in,” he says. “Everybody was interested in what Jack was gonna say, or thought, or gonna do.”

This “Pied Piper” status propelled Jack to such incredible accomplishments as recording Roy Orbison and Jerry Lee Lewis at Sun Records in the 1950s, arranging the signature horns on Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire,” producing landmark albums like Waylon Jennings’ Dreaming My Dreams and U2’s Rattle and Hum and knocking down racial barriers in country by working with Charley Pride. He also wrote Johnny’s hit “Guess Things Happen That Way” and others. He even recorded on his own from time to time, including 1978’s All I Want to Do in Life*.

“I don’t think you can look at him being in the rooms he was in and the records he was involved in as some remarkable coincidence,” muses John.

“He changed everything. He made it OK to dream big,” adds Shawn. “He was just a graceful, brilliant genius. I don’t even know how to put it into words. He danced his way through every problem he ever had in life, right to the end.” Both literally and figuratively—Jack was a former dance instructor back in his Memphis days.

Jack also kept a very open-door policy at the Cowboy Arms, befriending and mentoring a whole new generation of musicians and producers who arrived at his doorstep. 

“I’ve probably brought 30 or 40 co-writers that never would have met him, in his door—just dropped in after lunch,” says Shawn. “I’d just swing by there and we’d go in and I’d walk them through, introduce them to everybody. ‘This is Cowboy.’ ‘Sit down,’ he’d say. ‘Well, play me something.’ He’d want to hear a song from these people. He became friends with them all. I’m not the only one who did that.”

Many of his fans attempt to repay that favor on For Once and for All, which was recorded as Jack’s health began to deteriorate. “I knew if we didn’t do it right then, it was never gonna get done,” says Fergie. “Jack was up for it. Some days he’d work for a couple hours, some days he’d work for three hours, some days he would say, ‘Man, I’m just not up to it.’” Jack’s favorite drummer, Kenny Malone, was brought in, along with guest guitarists like T Bone Burnett or Dan Auerbach, and they only recorded songs by Jack that had never been cut before.

“Everybody that’s on that record, he loved every one of those people,” continues Fergie, who tracked Jack’s vocals in a two-week period. “He loved their music. Every singer that’s on it and every line that’s sung on that record was strategically placed to where it would not take away from Cowboy and do the maximum amount of good. I spent a lot of time thinking about who’s gonna sing where.”

Jack sounds remarkably assured throughout, as on “Let the Chips Fall,” which inspired the album’s title and features T Bone and Matt Sweeney on guitar. “That was kind of a last-minute one I remembered,” says Fergie. “He had to relearn it. He hadn’t even thought about it in years.”

Shawn sang background vocals on album closer, “The Air Conditioner Song,” shortly after finding out that Jack had died. He had been on the way to visit Jack at home when Fergie called with the news. “I was singing with him like 30 minutes after he passed away,” he recalls. “I’m from Arkansas, so that’s a kinship-type tune for me because that’s where I’m from. It’s about him growing up in Newport, Arkansas, at his grandparents’ house every summer. I was really touched to be singing with him that quickly after he left us. It was an odd feeling.”

Though he may be gone, Jack left fingerprints all over music and the industry that won’t soon be washed away. “It’s very, very important that we realize that there were people who were ahead of us in this business that took huge chances and were incredibly innovative, and Jack was one of those,” says John Grady. “This legacy will last. It’s set in stone. This record has given us a reason to talk about him all over again, which is really cool. I hope he’s happy with us.”

He undoubtedly would be. Jack had a saying about working in music. “Remember, we’re in the fun business,” he would say. “If we’re not having fun, we’re not doing our job.” 

Thankfully, he did exactly that and taught a whole bunch of others like Shawn and Fergie to do the same.

“I just liked him. He was a friend of mine,” says Shawn. “I just loved him. It wasn’t so much what he’d done. It was more Cowboy himself. He was the attraction.”

Fergie, who learned his trade under Jack’s careful guidance, concurs, though he still feels the pain of the loss. “He said, ‘I’m gonna teach you to be me,’” he recalls, with a touch of sadness. “And I just worshipped the guy like a god. He was like a father to me. I miss him terribly.” 

All I Want To Do In Life

For Once and for All is only the third full-length album to feature Cowboy Jack singing, after 2004’s Guess Things Happen That Way and 1978’s beloved All I Want to Do in Life, which was a labor of love.

“It took months and months and months and months because he was really, really particular about every little thing,” says Fergie. “I’ve recently gone through the outtakes of all that and there’s like 40 reels of tape from that.” 

For all his whimsy, Jack could still be a tough perfectionist in trying to get the sound he wanted. But instead of a maniac trying the same thing over and over, it sounds more like he was fond of experimentation. “One song, [he] cut it like 30 times,” adds Fergie. “And every kind of groove, every kind of key, just exploring. His first record, to a lot of people in the music business, that is a landmark album.” 

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