story by Anna VanHorn, special to The City Wire
photos courtesy of Jed Clampit
FAYETTEVILLE — In the days when Fayetteville’s vibrant live music scene was dominated by locals, Jed Clampit was a marquee performer. On any given weekend, you could see him at George’s Majestic Lounge, Maxine’s or Chester’s. Or Jose’s. Or The Grill. Or ...
A trek in search of a Jed set was never a long journey.
He’s a real character — a friendly, charismatic fellow who can sound like Willie Nelson and whose long, wiry beard smells like beer. During those times of the year when the student population evaporated, Clampit took his show on the road, mostly to the ski lodges of Colorado or up along the East Coast.
He’s has been playing music for 48 years. He proudly admits he quit his “real job” as a TV and stereo salesman for Sears on April 7, 1973, and has been playing music professionally ever since. He’s strummed his way from New York to California and has played one gig each in England and Brazil. He has seven CDs on the market and still plays consistently to mostly local audiences.
Clampit’s twangy voice and skillful picking are legendary, but given the chance to sit down and chat, one can quickly see that his charm and appeal extend beyond his talent. He exudes an optimistic spirit and considerate nature on stage and off, endearing him to both audiences and friends.
His music is a blend of folk, roots, country and rock ‘n’ roll, the sum of which he calls “front porch contemporary.” For an earful, music lovers need look no further than the Mount Sequoyah Retreat and Conference Center this Saturday (June 23), when Clampit opens for Grammy Award-winning bluegrass artist Carl Jackson.Tickets can be purchased here.
Jackson might have the trophies, but at least around these parts, Clampit has the clout.
Soldier and a salesman
Originally hailing from Monticello, Clampit started playing guitar at age 12 and only gained steam from that point on. After school, he went on the road playing music until March of 1968. Clampit then served a four-year stint in the Air Force, finishing as a staff sergeant in security police. When he got out, he landed in Albuquerque, New Mexico, with a job at Sears.
Clampit says that he started out selling “little stuff” at Sears, like TVs and radios, but quickly added guitars to the list. He made it a habit of tuning all the inventory, and since he was a player, he was often asked to demonstrate the different models. During his first holiday season on the job, he sold more guitars than were sold in the history of the store.
While working at Sears, Clampit continued to play music and take gigs on the side, playing in a rock ‘n’ roll band with his brother, Bil.
“We weren’t very good, and we didn’t make any money,” he said. The lack of pay was of little consequence, he said, because “for two or three days after that I’d just feel great. It would fill my cup on the inside.”
So in 1973, he left Sears for good to begin the next leg of his journey.
“I sold my house, gave everything away and just took with me what I could fit in my car. I paid everything off and just took off,” recalls Clampit.
His co-workers predicted he’d be back to slinging guitars and TVs within six months, but Jed proved them wrong.
“Time in the chair”
The key to making a living playing music, says Clampit, is to keep overhead down and have tremendous faith in God.
“You’re gonna be out there in the world, and ain’t nobody else there but God,” he says.
Any money he made, he made above board. If he couldn’t afford it, he’d go without.
“I’d rather go hungry than do wrong. I ain’t gonna lie cheat or steal.”
Clampit eventually made his way to Fayetteville by “just passing through” when he came to visit with a friend and bandmate from Gravette in 1974. He fell in love with Northwest Arkansas.
“I’m a hillbilly, country boy. Not a city boy at all,” Clampit says. What struck him about the area, particularly in those days, was the fact that it didn’t matter what you did for a living or how much money you did or didn’t have. What mattered, he says, “was the kind of person you were.” That’s still how he sees it today.
In addition to the eclectic and loveable locals, he was drawn to the area’s music scene.
“Fayetteville has always been a mecca of really high caliber players,” Clampit says. It’s not at all uncommon to see him in the audience, checking out the music at the local venues. He says there are a lot of “really hot cats” who are just coming into their own. He’s happy to support them, knowing how tough the road can be.
When asked if he feels like a mentor to the new generation, he sweetly shrugs it off saying, “I’m the old guy, I’ve got more time in the chair than most of them have on the planet.”
“Time in the chair” is a concept he attributes to his old friend Don Tyson, the late Tyson Foods chairman and CEO, who used to come see Clampit play at the former Supper Club between 1976 and 1981. He says Tyson told him, “Jed, it’s all time in the chair,” meaning that the key to being successful is to keep growing. It’s a sentiment that he took to heart from that day on.
“That was 35 years ago, and now I’ve got 35 years of practice and time in the chair, and it feels better this year than it did last year, and it’ll be better next than it is now.”
Clampit’s chair is more like a barstool, though he only occasionally plays in bars. Nowadays he prefers private parties and events, for which he gets $500 and up. He also has a standing gig on Tuesdays at Pesto Café in Fayetteville. He has plans to record an eighth CD in the “next 2 to 5 years. So be sure and watch for it,” he says with a chuckle. With the exception of a few summers in Colorado, he plans to spend the majority of his time in Arkansas.
Where ever he goes, his guitar goes with him.
“I’m going to be doing this as long as the good Lord allows. You don’t ever retire from picking.”