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Nashville Legend Cowboy Jack Clement Saluted in Star-Studded Tribute

Kris Kristofferson, Michelle Obama, Bono among those toasting Sun Studios producer

Nikki Lane and Dan Auerbach perform during the Tribute to Cowboy Jack Clement at War Memorial Auditorium in Nashville, Tennessee.
Beth Gwinn/Getty Images
January 31, 2013 12:45 PM ET

"Jack Clement isn't in the Country Music Hall of Fame? What . . . the . . . fuck!" T Bone Burnett exclaimed to rousing applause near the end of an all-star tribute to Cowboy Jack Clement at Nashville's War Memorial Auditorium last night.

Both onstage and in pre-recorded video interludes, A-listers including John Prine, John Hiatt, John C. Reilly, Kris Kristofferson, Michelle Obama, Bill Clinton, Vince Gill, Bono and the Black Keys' Dan Auerbach joined Burnett in honoring Clement, a music legend who carved out his legacy from behind the scenes.

Those horns on "Ring of Fire" – they were his idea. His influence on six decades of popular American music is incalculable, and yet, it's true – he's in neither the Rock and Roll nor the Country Music Hall of Fame. (Yesterday, Governor Bill Haslam did, however, declare Clement an "ambassador of goodwill for the state of Tennessee.") But as American music historian Peter Guralnick said in his opening address last night, "the measure of the man is the audience." And for most of the show, a benefit for Music Health Alliance, Clement himself watched from the crowd as a cross-generational cast of contemporaries and influencees covered classics he either penned or produced.

Video: Inside Johnny Cash's Collaborations

A rightful rockabilly Renaissance man, as Sam Phillips' house producer and engineer at Sun Studios during its heyday, and later as an RCA Nashville staff producer during Music Row's golden era, Clement was an undeniable architect of both classic country and rock & roll. His credits behind the mixing board include Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis' debut albums, U2's Rattle and Hum and almost every conceivable country, roots and rockabilly name in between. "Without Jack, the whole thing would come unraveled," Emmylou Harris, who dueted with Rodney Crowell on a beaming rendition of the Waylon Jennings weeper "Dreaming My Dreams With You," told Rolling Stone after the event.

"I owe everything that ever happened good to me to Jack," Kris Kristofferson said, recounting Clement as the first friend he made in Nashville and crediting the man for inspiring his decision to leave the military. Kristofferson, genuine twinkle-in-eye and all,  delighted the crowd with a ragged rendition of Cash's "Big River."

For those in the ballroom closest to Clement, stirring performances (like Crowell and Harris's) of somber songs struck a chord. "I love you!" Harris shouted at Clement from the stage. "I love you, too!" a booming voice replied from the darkness. At 81 years old, Clement is getting by with a little help from his friends. A June 2011 house fire at his Nashville home/studio, Cowboy Arms Hotel & Spa, consumed irreplaceable master tapes and mementos documenting his legacy, and now he is battling liver cancer.

Giving Crowell and Harris a run for their money, Dan Auerbach and Nashville neo-country chanteuse Nikki Lane – whose next record the Black Keys frontman just finished producing – were all smiles as they played the parts of Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton on an uncannily faithful duet of the lost-lovers' AM radio serenade "Just Someone I Used to Know." Auerbach told Rolling Stone he jumped at the suggestion of Clement's longtime studio engineer, David R. "Fergie" Ferguson, that he sing "Someone." "That song is amazing," he said. "I'd love to sing [it]."

Musically, the show was mostly executed in classic Opry style – with the singers, backed by ace axe-slinger Kenny Vaughn and a crack house band, darting on and off stage for minutes-long, drive-by performances. Auerbach and Lane, still grinning ear-to-ear, looked almost stunned, as if the moment went by too quickly for them to take in, before bidding the crowd adieu and disappearing from the stage in the blink of an eye.

"It was mind-blowing," said an elated Auerbach when asked how it felt to share the bill with legends like Kristofferson and Clement. "That show was so amazing. It definitely exceeded every expectation I had."

Auerbach and Lane weren't the only relative whippersnappers to steal an ovation or two. Americana darling Amos Lee sauntered onto the stage with the confidence of a young Brando and, with a resplendent rendition of Jim Reeves' "I Know One," brought the house down like he owned the place. And despite a false start and a drummer's soupy pocket, rail-thin Wallflower Jakob Dylan held his own, crooning Waylon's "Waymore's Blues" in a dark, breathy rasp.

Looking spry in spite of his mom jeans, dad jacket and professorial specs, de facto Duke of Nashville Vince Gill sang Charley Pride's "Does My Ring Hurt Your Finger" at the top of his range, in a rendition he described as "what it would've sounded like had a woman cut it." He totally nailed it with the ease of a sleeper slapping a snooze bar.

With the exception of Clement's closing set, Pride himself was the one guest of the night to have the distinction of singing more than one song. He killed on "Just Between You and Me" and "Kiss an Angel Good Morning."

For veteran Opry alum like Pride and Gill, this format was no first rodeo – a point Del McCoury made with his sparkling rhinestones and silver pompadour, and Dickey Lee made with his bell-clear croon when singing "She Thinks I Still Care," his 1962 hit for George Jones. Perhaps the pin-drop standout of the night, if not the most emotional, was John Prine – himself a weathered troubadour – clad head-to-toe in black, lending his vulnerable rasp and delicate fingerpicking to a mournful, solo-acoustic take on Clement's "Ballad of a Teenage Queen." That moment was, however, rivaled in splendor by Mary Gauthier and Matt Urmy (the tribute's fresh-faced organizer) leading a small gospel choir on an uplifting sing-along on "We Must Believe in Magic."

But ballads and maladies be damned, for most of the night the mood was anything but dire. Clement's quirky songwriting canon boasts rock and country staples like "Let's All Help a Cowboy Sing the Blues" and "Diry Old Egg Suckin' Dog," on which Marshall Chapman and Sam Bush, respectively, playfully led the crowd in call-and-response sing-along.

"What a night!" Clement said as an aid helped him to an onstage stool. "Don't want me to fall off the stool," he joked. But what the night's honoree lacked in moves, he made up in voice and mirth, turning in a five-song set that went from otherworldly, with the piano-ballad "When I Dream," to outright festive on the country-polka-Afro-fusion samba "Brazil."

The tribute also featured speakers such as Deadwood actor Earl Brown, who read a comical passage from Clement's unpublished autobiography, Clement's daughter, poet-author Alison Clement, and Nashville co-creator Callie Khouri. Perhaps most impressive was Nashville star Connie Britton, who read a congratulatory letter from Michelle Obama to Clement: "Throughout your remarkable career, you've helped inspire some of our nation's most treasured musicians, and I know your legacy will live on in Nashville and beyond," the First Lady's statement read in part.

In between performances and speeches, pre-recorded video statements from famed Clement friends and fans such as Bill Clinton, Taylor Swift and Marty Stuart rolled. More hilarious than other clips of Clement chumming it up with Cash and Townes Van Zandt, or an animated William Shakespeare culled from the oddball 2007 documentary Shakespeare Was a Big George Jones Fan, was the congratulatory, albeit very abstruse clip U2's Bono sent in. The singer held up a laptop, talked about the digital age and quoted Clement in an unbelievable Southern accent: "'It's not about math, boy. It's about magic. Do you believe in magic?' he said to me. 'Yes,' I answered, 'I believe in magic.' But tonight! I want to say to you, Jack – if you've ever doubted it – the magic believes in you!"

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