Cowboy" Jack Clement was 5 years old in 1936, the year the Works Progress Administration allocated $11,000 to the city of Memphis to build a band shell in Overton Park.
By the 1940s, the Whitehaven-born songwriter was a regular visitor at the Shell, then called the Memphis Open Air Theater.
This Thursday, Clement, a Sun Studio alumnus who moved east to forge his path as a venerated producer on Nashville's Music Row, returns home to perform at the Midtown amphitheater, which reopened last fall, after a million-dollar renovation, as the Levitt Shell.
"I went when I was a kid for various things," Clement says of his memories of the Shell. "I saw Johnny Cash there one time, back when he was still doing his Elvis impersonation."
He gives a dry laugh, savoring the incongruous image but quickly moves on. The man who discovered Jerry Lee Lewis, heard the trumpet solo for "Ring Of Fire" in a dream, and recorded U2's Rattle and Hum isn't one to dwell on the past.
"We'll be doing an hour and a half of a lot of the songs I wrote," Clement says. "I've got a good band with me — the Jay Patton Band — and special guest Shawn Camp, who wrote 'River of Love' for George Strait. He plays guitar, fiddle, mandolin, and sings. We're working on a new album together, a real danceable kind of album."
Appraising the 78-year-old Clement's career, which is still going strong, Anne Pitts, executive director of the Levitt Shell, says there couldn't be a better choice to headline the first night of the venue's sophomore season.
"His eclecticism is exactly what we're going for," says Pitts, who estimates that more than 21,000 Memphians attended the 23 free concerts that constituted the Levitt Shell's inaugural season.
"We've got a mandate from the Levitt Foundation to put on 50 free concerts a year," she continues. "What we're trying to do is bring the community together, and to do that, we've got to appeal to everybody. We're trying to program acts that are going to attract everyone in Memphis."
This season, those acts include Memphis roots-rocker Jimmy Davis, who opens for Clement on Thursday night; Oxford, Mississippi, ukulele player Dent May on June 6th; New Orleans soul singer Betty Harris, booked with funk group the Believers, on June 12th; Latin guitarist Alex Cuba on June 13th; and politically minded folkie (and onetime Memphian) Todd Snider, on June 18th.
"I enjoy outdoor performances," says Corey Harris, a Colorado-born, Virginia-based blues/world-music veteran who is slated to play the Levitt Shell this Friday, May 29th.
"It's nice to play out in the air, and having a free show is cool because you get a wide stratum of people. I play music because I love it and because I want to reach as many people as I can," says the 40-year old Harris, who will bring a four-man band to perform a self-described mix of "blues, some music that has soul, R&B, and reggae vibes, too."
"The main thing we learned from last season was how to deal with the rain," Pitts says. "We'll be watching the weather really closely, but we're going to be a little braver. On opening night last season, we realized that people will stay out there, even if a little rain is coming down. As long as it's not a dangerous storm, we're going to push the envelope a bit."
The Levitt Shell's casual environment, free entry, and early show times made the venue a big hit for families with young children. This season, kids will be the beneficiaries of even more programming, including Making Music Muscles, a weekly opportunity for children to acquire hands-on musical experience with assistance from the likes of puppeteer Jimmy Crosthwait and radio personality Mother Wit. With any luck, the program will help bolster the sizeable number of second- and third-generation Shell fans.
"One of Jimmy Davis' first performances, when he was a 9-year-old kid, was at the Shell. A month ago, I met a gentleman in his 70s who told me he met his wife there," Pitts says.
"I've heard so many stories like that, how the Levitt Shell has a deep-seated place in people's hearts. To see it cycling around again is really cool."
"Cowboy" Jack Clement with opening act Jimmy Davis
Levitt Shell, Thursday, May 28th, 7 p.m.
Free For more information, go to LevittShell.org.