Cowboy Jack’s Spa Of A Studio Is Back In The Family And Back In Operation
On June 25, 2011 more than a dozen fire trucks sirened their way to a handsome brick and timber house on Nashville’s Belmont Boulevard, where a blaze was engulfing the second floor. It was a historic loss - The Cowboy Arms Hotel And Recording Spa, the fancifully named, fully-functioning studio (and home) of Cowboy Jack Clement, one of the few songwriters and record producers who could legitimately be called legendary.
Clement was 80 years old at the time. He and his “leading lady” Aleene escaped the burning structure unharmed, with their cats and a prized Gibson J-200 acoustic guitar he’d owned for 60 years. Otherwise, many other instruments, recording equipment and hundreds of Clement’s personal demo recordings and work-in-progress sessions with great Nashville songwriters were destroyed.
The next day, family member Bob Clement made his way up what was left of the stairway to the former studio. “I remember how beautiful and clear blue it was the day after the fire,” Bob said recently, sitting in what is now the fully renovated second floor. “Strangest thing. This whole attic, it just looked like a big deck on top of the house. (The roof) was just gone. There was a piano in the corner. Everybody knew where it was, but I came up and there was no piano. I couldn’t find even the cast (metal) part. It was just the strangest thing. It was like it had been airlifted out or something.”
The rebuilding and revival of Cowboy Jack’s personal studio is a bright spot in a time when some Music City landmarks from the same era are being demolished. It’s not the same suite of rooms exactly, but the bones and foundation of the house are the same. And the studio is a close approximation of its former self, as well as a functional improvement, overseen by a relative who knew Jack Clement for decades.
“Cousin” Bob Clement, as Cowboy called him (Bob’s father is Jack’s first cousin), grew up in Jackson, Mississippi and moved to Nashville in 1987, curious about his middle distance relative. Cowboy Jack, he discovered, was a jovial and restless overseer of a humming, commune-like production company that filled every space in the home. Besides doing some recording of his own, Bob worked as part of the technical crew during one of Jack’s less-than-triumphant stabs at TV and film production. Still, Bob learned the business and then became a professional lighting designer before going into the hand-made furniture business down in Franklin, where he was raising a family.
So after the fire happened, Bob was particularly qualified to consult with Jack and Aleene about reconstruction. They managed the project, building in improvements where needed and building for history where appropriate, including Cowboy Jack’s first floor office. Today it looks quite close to the way it was the day he salvaged his Gibson, down to the wraparound counter, the gigantic loudspeakers and a communication system that let Jack listen, consult and produce from one flight down. Jack got to see his headquarters completely repaired and updated, but only briefly, before he died in mid 2013, at age 82.
Today, Cousin Bob occupies the Belmont Boulevard home with his wife and two kids. The studio is still up the same narrow set of stairs, although long-time fans and friends will miss the cartoon sky mural of the old days. The mixing console is in the same place, facing away from the center of the room. Over the engineer’s shoulder is the entrance to the studio itself, a spacious central room even bigger than before, with isolation rooms off in several directions. It’s full of instruments. But that’s just the inanimate side. What matters is the place is again alive with songwriters.
One of them is Jon Cavendish, a long-time bass playing sideman who’s developing his debut as an artist, using the Spa as a laboratory and tracking room. He earned insider status with sweat equity, as part of the team that moved the 800-pound vintage mixing console up the stairs to its current place. This studio, he said “is really inspiring to me as someone who’s trying to figure out where his voice fits. It’s totally relaxed. Bob is just wonderful, eccentric in all the right ways. He’s a generation younger (than Jack), and I absolutely feel like he has that passion.”
Jack Clement made being passionate, eccentric and relaxed into an art form from the 1960s to the 2000s, setting his varied skills and relationships to historic purposes as one of Nashville’s defining producers and music scene makers. He came of age working under Sam Phillips at Sun Studio in Memphis. In Music City, he championed the career of an unknown Charley Pride, producing the run of albums that made the Mississippi-born singer the first black Country Music Hall of Famer since DeFord Bailey. For that and many other contributions, Jack himself became a Hall of Famer and the subject of a very funny and quirky documentary.
The Cowboy Arms studio isn’t to be confused with another recording landmark a few blocks down on Belmont, where the curious can find a Jack Clement historic marker. Jack built that place, his first in town, in 1969. It later became known as Sound Emporium, a vital Music City locus of creativity for Garth Brooks, Alison Krauss, the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack and much more. The home studio nearby was looser, less a commercial enterprise and more of a community hub, where Jack worked and played with Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings, Chet Atkins, Billy Burnette, Shawn Camp and countless others. Clement called it “a home studio gone wild” with as much emphasis on the home as the wild.
After the renovation and Clement’s death, the family sold the house to a music publishing company, but after a few years, they called Bob to say they were ready to sell and wanted to give him first refusal. He didn’t refuse.
The new Spa is busy daily with recording or mixing. Besides Jon Cavendish, they’ve been making records here on songwriters they hope you’ll be hearing about - Peck Chandler, Conrad Fisher, Doak Snead and Bob’s daughter Emily. Bob says it’s going to maintain the clubhouse ethos of its most famous proprietor, whose professional motto was “We’re in the Fun Business. If we’re not having fun, we’re not doing our job.” And that means that the business model isn’t typical either.
“My operating philosophy is we’re not going to mass advertise,” Clement says. “Here’s what would be perfect. Our friends record here. And the friends of our friends. That’s the way I’d like it to keep growing.”
The good news is that around here, it’s not hard to become a friend.