Cowboy Jack Clement, legendary in music circles for everything from being present at the birth of rock ‘n’ roll at Sun Studios to writing hits for Johnny Cash to eventually working with U2, has been pegged as the subject of a feature film that Nashville’s Visionary Media Group has signed a deal with Clement’s estate to develop.
Additionally, plans are afoot for an all-star album that would have singers and songwriters that knew Clement finishing and recording unfinished songs that he left behind. Clement died in 2013 at age 82, just a few months after being named as an inductee into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Further Clement-related projects could be in the works down the road, but the film and album will be the initial focus in a deal made between the late producer-songwriter’s family, represented by daughter Alison Clement, and Visionary Media Group, a still fairly new multi-media company in Nashville led by founding managing partner Nick Sciorra and chief content strategist Anastasia Brown.
“We see Cowboy Jack Clement as a foundational piece of our company,” Sciorra tells Variety, noting he pursued the deal for a decade, well before Visionary Media Group was founded. “We’re getting this chance to finally tell this story. I refuse to have this thing die in a museum. I mean, it’d be great to have him in the Smithsonian! I’m happy to work on that as well. But I feel like there’s no reason that he should not be part of that tradition of great films from ‘Amadeus’ to ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ that tell the world about that person’s ability to add to an artform, and to introduce the power of this guy’s life and work to folks.”
Says Brown, “It could be as colorful as the movie ‘Big Fish’ and be 100% accurate and true, because that’s how big his life was.
Brown adds that Visionary “just signed a contract with the estate, and now we are looking at researchers and screenwriters, and once we narrow that list down, then we’ll go large and start looking at directors. But I have a few casting ideas already, just for Sam Phillips and Roy Orbison and all of those wonderful characters. That will be a fun casting gig, that’s for sure.”
Clement, fresh out of the Marines, began working for Sun Records founder Phillips in 1954, where he participated in the making of records by Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Orbison and others, and was the man rolling tape when Elvis Presley stopped in to join those three for the famous “Million Dollar Quartet” jam session. In the ’60s, he produced Cash’s “Ring of Fire” and wrote his songs “Ballad of a Teenage Queen,” “Guess Things Happen That Way” and, yes, “Flushed From the Bathroom of Your Heart.”
Crucially, Clement helped convince Chet Atkins to sign Black country pioneer Charley Pride at the height of the civil rights struggle, writing his first two hit singles and producing the star’s first 13 albums. He produced Waylon Jennings’ classic “Dreamin’ My Dreams,” followed by records for U2, Eddy Arnold, Louis Armstrong, John Prine, Emmylou Harris and Townes Van Zandt. He was also involved when Cash, Jennings, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson joined forces as the supergroup the Highwaymen.
Alison Clement is especially pleased that the deal will allow her to proceed on an album she had planned for a while that would turn her father’s unfinished lyric scraps into completed songs.
This deal doesn’t represent the whole kit and kaboodle for what could be done with her father’s legacy — “there’s probably a potential for 50 kaboodles of stuff over here,” Clement points out. “But I’m extremely excited about both. I’m very happy about the movie, but I’m especially happy about the other project because that’s kind of my baby. It was brought to life from me just sorting through my dad’s things after he passed away and finding where he had started songs on hotel stationery, menus, you name it. Then I found some unfinished songs in his file cabinet, and I ended up with about 60 and I thought: My dad didn’t leave traces if there wasn’t potential. If he had not thought this was worth coming back to, he would have just thrown it in the garbage. So I thought, why don’t I just get together some of the people that knew my dad and get them to take one out and finish it? I do want to keep it so that everybody involved is just a degree of separation in some way from my dad — which is probably about, I don’t know, 5,000 people,” she laughs.
Clement adds that “unfortunately, two of the people that I had on board, I lost this year, John Prine and Charley Pride. But everybody was charmed by him. He was the most charming human being you can ever know, because he just brought out the fun in people, so nobody ever said no to him. So when I call people, the response I get is not, ‘Oh, well, maybe if I have time, I’ll think about it.’ It’s like, ‘Please let me see the book’ [of song scraps]. And I’m like, ‘Okay, I’ll make you a peach cobbler and you can come over and we’ll see the book.’ Because they want to know what was going on in his head when nobody was looking.”
Brown and Sciorra both go back a ways with Clement, before they ever met or became professionally aligned. Brown, well known for having been a judge on the TV series “Nashville Star” and an A&R executive who was the first to sign Keith Urban, met Clement when she first came to Nashville.
“In 1993, I started working in the music industry with Miles Copeland, and then one of the first people I met was Cowboy,” Brown says. “Back then there weren’t a lot of men on Music Row that would want to mentor a young lady in management and A&R, but Cowboy did. So I spent a lot of time at his studio — and he spent a lot of time at my parties,” she laughs. “And between him and Miles Copeland, I learned that there are absolutely no boundaries, and there’s no ‘This is the way it’s done because it’s always been done this way.’ They lived their lives doing just letting music kind of guide every decision, even though it might sound insane or unrealistic. That rubbed off on me, even hearing about how he went to Roy Acuff with Charley Pride’s music, when the color of his skin prevented him from getting a record deal in Nashville — and when he couldn’t, he had to go up to New York, and he paid for that record with his own money. He knew the music was so good that he had to overcome every obstacle. and he did.”
Of her own career path as an A&R exec and music supervisor leading to Visionary, Brown says, “I’d been really, really passionate about trying to help create a self-sustaining film/TV scoring industry in Nashville, and I guess it was just too soon. Then, right before the pandemic hit, Visionary came to me and said, ‘Would you run our entertainment company, head up our A&R, and create television and films and documentaries where all of this content can be created and shared under one roof?’ Literally, I almost fainted, because that’s what I’ve been wanting to do since 2005. And I didn’t know that Nick had been trying to get the rights for Cowboy for 10 years. I said, ‘That would be like heaven for me.’ I went to his family and said, ‘I want to do this movie with you just as bad as Nick does. And what do we have to do to get the deal done?’ And boom, it wrapped up within a few months.”
Alison Clement says that putting Sciorra on hold “had nothing to do with the quality of the people. It just took us a minute to get there. My brother and I have cataloged over 2,900 pieces of media,” not even counting what was lost when her father’s home was destroyed in a fire in 2011 — “everything from super-8MM to motion picture film to DATs and CDs” — plus untold numbers of long, handwritten letters between Cowboy and Cash and others. “We didn’t want to just jump out there and do the first thing. We wanted to really make sure that we had our ducks in a row and were prepared to provide them with what they needed comprehensively to make something great.”
Sciorra started pursuing it with Clement while he was still alive. He admits as an entertainment attorney he was “not an expert in that genre,” but friends started telling him about Clement’s involvement with Sun, Cash, the Highwaymen and Pride, “and when they got to U2, that was kind of the last straw for me, because ‘Rattle and Hum’ is one of my favorite records. I was like, God, who is this guy? I felt like from an American music and American musical cultural perspective, someone had to tell this guy’s story, and I was happy to just go get the story and pass it off to someone who was far abler. I got down to Nashville, got a meeting in place, ended up spending the week with Cowboy Jack — and it changed my life. I became completely obsessed with this guy and,” he confesses, “drove him totally nuts.”
Sciorra says he always felt a dramatic film and not documentary was the way to go. “I do feel like the story rises to a dramatic level, if we do it right. And we’re gonna work our tails up to do it right and get the right names associated. If it took 10 years, I feel like now we have a set of rights that are not only strong and hardened but allow us the time and the deal structure to do really unforgettable stuff. And that’s what he deserves.”
His daughter, Alison, admits she still isn’t sure how they’ll get a film out of a career-encompassing story, “because most people’s movies have a dark side, and here, there is no dark side. There is no drug problem,” she says. “There is no liquor problem. There is no jail or womanizing or tax evasion. So, you know, I guess it’s just going to have to be one of those feel-good movies, maybe.”