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Johnny Cash and Jack Clement
Johnny Cash and June Carter with Cowboy Jack Clement
Johnny Cash at Sun Records 1957
For almost half a century Johnny Cash and Jack Clement were boon companions. Together, they made some of the most memorable music in the history of American popular culture.
By July 1957 Sam Phillips was busy promoting the songs Clement had cut on Jerry Lee Lewis a few months earlier. The Killer was preparing for the Steve Allen Show appearance later that month that would shift his career into overdrive. Johnny Cash returned to Sun Studios to cut some new sides because, although "I Walk The Line" had reached #16 on the pop charts, his most recent single was not selling well and had struggled to chart at #99. Sam turned the reins over to Jack.
From the first note of the descending scale intro to "Home of the Blues", Cash's style started moving from the raw, bare-bones approach of his first records to something more mainstream. And when a song Jack had written, "Ballad of a Teenage Queen" with its backup singers and teen-romance storyline, was released later that year, the record-buying public went nuts. Millions were sold, and Cash had his first Number 1 country record. There was something about the combination of the two men's approaches that balanced - the sweet with the sour, the polished with the rough, the yin and yang.
In the meantime, unbeknownst to Phillips, Johnny was being wooed by Columbia. Offered nearly twice the royalty rate Sam was paying and feeling his star was (temporarily) being eclipsed by Jerry Lee's, Johnny was open to suggestion, and, in fact signed on to jump ship as soon as his contract was up with Sun. Sam was not happy. He insisted Cash turn in some more contractually obligated sides. Cash held back the songs he was writing. Jack, caught between two egos, rose to the occasion and provided a song he had written, "Guess Things Happen That Way". It has become a country music standard. With an able assist from new staff writer Charlie Rich, Clement cut enough Johnny Cash material to keep Sun releasing singles well into the early 60s.
Jack with Johnny and his sister-in-law Anita Carter,
The Bathtub Ring of Fire
It was sometime early in 1963. Jack was in a Beaumont, Texas hotel taking a bath ("Cleanliness is next to godliness") when the phone rang. It was Cash back in Nashville who was in the midst of cutting his tenth album for Columbia. June Carter and Merle Kilgore had written a song that haunted him so that he had dreamt about it. And in that dream he heard it played with, of all things, mariachi horns. But he needed somebody to put it together and make it fly.
''I knew he was the only one who'd see how it could work,'' Cash wrote in his autobiography. ''There wasn't any point in even discussing it with anyone else.''
Not only was he in a conflicted relationship with June and struggling with his drug-demons, but his recording career, though artistically solid, needed a commercial shot in the arm. After hitting the #1 Country spot with Don't Take Your Guns to Town on his first album after jumping to the major label, he had not matched its success in almost four years.
So Cowboy and his Gibson J-200 rolled back into town for the session on March 25, 1963. Although they were calling it a Greatest Hits album, the other songs had not been hits, and, in fact, had been recorded at various locations in Nashville and Hollywood from 1958-62 with Don Law and Frank Jones listed as producers. As Clement recalls, "So I came to Nashville and played guitar on Ring of Fire, had them put a different kind of mic on the drums, just to get their attention and hummed the horn part to the trumpet players. Bill McElhiney wrote it down, and they played it. And it was a big hit."
In a 1974 interview with Patrick Carr, Johnny Cash says, "Jack Clement and I work very well together sometimes. Sometimes we don't agree on anything, and I never know from one minute to the next whether we're going to be able to have a session together and work together for an hour. I don't know which direction his head's going, and he don't know where I'm going; and we're both a little egotistical and temperamental. We're going to have another session, and it may last for three days and nights ... or it might last for three minutes. I don't know. But we're going to give it a try. We're going to give it everything we got. We both respect each other quite a bit. I certainly respect him. If I didn't , I wouldn't work with him.
...so, when the songs come along, if Jack Clement and I are working right together, we're going to get something reminiscent of some of the things we had on Sun, I'm sure. We have a good sound on things like Ballad of a Teenage Queen, Guess Things Happen That Way, The Ways of a Woman in Love, things like that. Jack produced Ring of Fire."
Their collaboration resulted in a classic that is listed as #23 of the All-Time Top 500 country songs at About.com and in March 2006, more than forty years after its release, it was among the top 5 most downloaded country songs at iTunes.
Everybody Loves A Nut
Folsom Prison Break
The Adventures of Johnny Cash
Water from the Wells of Home
"Life Goes On" (Johnny Cash/Jack Clement) Sun 355 released December 1960
My Friend, The Famous Person a poem written by Jack Clement in 1991 and which he read at the funeral of Johnny Cash.