Cowboy Jack Clement: “I Guess Things Happen That Way”

Cowboy Jack Clement passed away this week in Nashville from cancer at the age of 82. The singer, producer, and songwriter had a long career with connections to some important figures in music history. Early in his career, Cowboy Jack Clement worked as a producer and engineer for Sam Phillips at Sun Records, helping discover Jerry Lee Lewis and recording him on such songs as “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.” He wrote Johnny Cash’s “Ballad of a Teenage Queen” and produced the singer’s recording of “Ring of Fire.” He also produced several U2 performances in 1987 for their Rattle & Hum album. And he continued producing music until his death, with his most recent work being on Cathy Maguire‘s upcoming 2014 album.

In 2005, a movie called Shakespeare Was a Big George Jones Fan focused on Clement’s career using his home movies. He had been in the Nashville Songwriter Hall of Fame since 1973, and he was going to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame later this year.

Among all of Clement’s accomplishments, the one that stands out for me is that he wrote the song, “I Guess Things Happen That Way.” The song was a hit for Johnny Cash in 1958. Almost four decades later, the song appeared on the excellent soundtrack to the underrated Clint Eastwood and Kevin Costner movie, A Perfect World (1993). Here is Cash’s original version of the song. (A live 1994 version is also on YouTube, but I prefer the original recording with the background singers the 1950s slapback sound.)

“I Guess Things Happen That Way” is one of the great heartbreak songs. In the song, the singer tells the listener about missing his lost love: “You ask me if I’ll miss her kisses./I guess I will, everyday.” He does not know if he will find another love (“I don’t know. I can’t say.).

But what is great about the song is that amid the pain, the singer and the upbeat music — including the background ba-doo-pa-doo’s — contemplate life getting better: “You ask me if I’ll get along./I guess I will, someway.” And the wonderful refrain reminds all of the heartbroken that they are not alone, “I don’t like it but I guess things happen that way.” It is one of the most perfect songs about the contradictory agony and hope that comes from losing a love.

Johnny Cash later recorded the song with Bob Dylan in 1969 while Dylan was making Nashville Skyline. “I Guess Things Happen That Way” did not end up on the album but you may listen to their version below. (Thanks to Michael Gray for pointing me to the Dylan-Cash collaboration.)

Clement originally wrote “I Guess Things Happen That Way” from a man’s point of view: “Heaven help me be a man / and have the strength to stand alone.” But Emmylou Harris shows that the song is more universal by adding a few tweaks (“Heaven help me to be strong”) in this performance at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville.

The song also may be performed as a man-woman duet, as shown by Kris Kristofferson and Norah Jones at a Johnny Cash tribute concert. The performance works equally well here as a tribute to Cowboy Jack Clement.


Finally, here is a recent Clement performance of “Guess Things Happen That Way.” Paul Smith of Boundary Road accompanies Clement at the The Cowboy Arms Hotel and Recording Spa in Nashville, Tennessee.

We are sad at the passing of Cowboy Jack Clement. But we are thankful for the work he created during his long career giving us a little extra joy and comfort for our short time here on earth. I don’t like it, but I guess things happen that way.

What is your favorite Cowboy Jack Clement song? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    Goin’ Down the Road to See Bessie

    April 15 is tax day, but it is also the birthday of great blues singer Bessie Smith, who was born April 15, 1894. Chimesfreedom has previously discussed Smith and her performance of “St. Louis Blues,” so today we consider a song about her that was written by Rick Danko and Robbie Robertson of The Band.

    In “Bessie Smith,” the singer describes a trip to see Smith. It appears the singer is in love with her, but he questions whether or not the love is based on the way she could sing.

    Now in my day I’ve made some foolish moves;
    But back then, I didn’t worry ’bout a thing;
    And now again I still wonder to myself;
    Was it her sweet love or the way that she could sing?

    Apparently, time has passed since the singer last saw his love. And he wonders how she will react when she sees him again (“When she sees me will she know what I’ve been through? / Will old times start to feelin’ like new?”). We first heard the song when it came out on The Basement Tapes made by The Band and Bob Dylan, although only The Band plays on the song and there is some debate about when the song was actually written and recorded. (Update: Unfortunately, the Band’s version of “Bessie Smith” is no longer available on YouTube.)

    In a thorough discussion of the history of the song, Peter Viney quotes one of Danko’s obituaries describing “Bessie Smith” as “a sepia-styled valentine to the fine line between respect and adoration, and the ways in which music blurs them both into love.” Viney also raises the possibility that the song is about an “appointment with death,” because by the time it was written and recorded, Bessie Smith had been dead for decades.

    Several artists have covered “Bessie Smith,” including Ray Lamontagne and Joe Henry. Norah Jones performs a nice cover of “Bessie Smith” in this video. Check it out.

    Bessie Smith died from injuries from a car accident in 1937, just as she was starting a comeback. Although The Band’s song about her was not done in her style of singing, The Band was well aware of the history of American music, and “Bessie Smith” was a nice tribute to an important American singer. And so it is our birthday tribute too.

    What is your favorite Bessie Smith song? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    New Ryan Adams Song: “Lucky Now”

    Some of my favorite recordings are by Ryan Adams. I like some of his CDs more than others, which may not be surprising considering how productive and diverse Adams is. I find some of his songs are fire, and others are ashes. But overall, he is one of the most talented artists now making music. And on October 11, he is releasing a new solo effort, Ashes & Fire. He just released one of the songs, “Lucky Now.”

    Reports indicate the CD will have a country-rock sound, featuring guests Norah Jones and Benmont Tench of Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers (piano). From the sound of “Lucky Now” (as well as some clips of live performances of other new songs), the CD looks promising. I can’t wait.

    What are your favorite Ryan Adams CDs or songs? Leave a comment.

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