By Brian Wise.
JJ Cale passed away on Friday July 26 at the age of 74. He rarely toured or gave interviews but in July 1996 I was lucky enough to talk to him on the release of his 12th studio album Guitar Man.
After that, I was as unsuccessful as most other writers in getting another interview with Cale. Even when I offered to drive out to meet him at or near his home in Southern California he politely declined the request. A few years ago I also just missed seeing him by weeks when he emerged from seclusion to do a few concerts.
In recent years, of course, Cale has enjoyed renewed success for his work with Eric Clapton, especially with the Grammy Award winning Road To Escondido. Cale’s life is outlined in the excellent 2005 documentary To Tulsa and Back: On Tour with J.J.Cale.
Cale’s guitar style could best be described as ‘economical,’ most of his albums sparse, but below the surface there was a lot going on. His playing was deceptively simple but on songs such as ‘Call Me The Breeze,’ ‘After Midnight,’ and ‘Cocaine’ he proved that he was also a master of the ‘groove.’
Below is an article that I wrote for the August 1996 edition of Rhythms Magazine.
THE GUITAR MAN IS BACK
The elusive J.J. Cale returns with his twelfth album – or the twelfth version of his first album!
I suggest to J.J. Cale that he has managed to fool the music industry. He has been making the same album – superlative though it is – for the past 25 years and no one has quite figured it out yet!
Rather than drop the phone on me or hang up, he sends a quiet chuckle down the line.
“That’s true,” he agrees, as if he has suddenly been found out. “Some of my record company people hate for me to say this but all these albums kind of sound alike to me.
“The songs are different but basically, if you stand way back, it’s J.J. Cale music. I can’t get rid of myself. I can’t fire myself and hire somebody new!”
For someone who proclaims that he needs to work up the energy to do any touring at all, Cale is remarkably talkative on the line from his secluded home outside San Diego. He has just released his twelfth album in nearly a quarter of a century and is doing some rare promotional interviews.
He recalls the time he last toured Australia some twenty years ago and the fact that all of the musicians were seated on stage, including himself. Laid back?
“We were old men then,” laughs Cale. “So you can imagine how we are now.”
So low-key has been the career of the now fifty-seven year old Cale – he rarely tours anywhere these days – that it is easy to lose sight of his influence. His songs have been covered by Captain Beefheart, Freddie King, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Poco, Deep Purple, John Mayall, Johnny Cash, The Allman Brothers, Santana, John Mayall with, of course, the most famous interpreter being Eric Clapton.
“After Midnight,” “Cocaine” and “Crazy Mama’ have all been given the Clapton treatment and have managed to help pay Cale’s rent over the years.
“The top of the line is to know that other musicians are listening to your music and doing some of your songs,” says Cale. “That’s better than the money, actually.”
Without J.J. Cale there would surely be no Mark Knopfler? “You might be right there. I hear my influence in other artists,” he agrees. “That’s standard. When you do something and you have a quirky little style and people like it then other musicians pick up on it. Guitar players are the greatest at stealing from each other. I steal from everybody else and they steal from me. That’s how we all advance the art of music.”
Along with Leon Russell, Cale was one of the founders of the Tulsa Sound, a subdued mix of blues shuffles, country influences and old-time rock n’ roll. Over thirty years ago Cale and his band the Valentines were playing the same bars as Ronnie Hawkins & The Hawks (later The Band). Cale Cites Scotty Moore, Les Paul, Chuck Berry, Chet Atkins and Clarence ‘Gatemouth’ Brown as some of his favourite players when he was young.
After following Leon Russell to California, Cale found work as a session player and also as an engineer. The latter job has enabled him to keep in touch with technology and feel confident about producing his latest recording with a minimum of outside help.
“That put me on the inside of the business,” he recalls “I could see things happening to make me aware of songs and the recording process. I was an engineer and all musicians needed an engineer in those days and that put me in contact with a lot of people.
“The sessions were in the day time and at night I would play with Delaney and Bonnie down at the local bar, play with blues bands and country bands, wherever I could get a job.”
After working with Delaney and Bonnie (prior to Clapton’s guest appearance in that outfit), Cale returned home and worked locally until Clapton’s version of “After Midnight” opened a solo career.
After moving to Nashville in 1970, Cale released his debut album, Naturally, in 1972.
“I did the unplugged, live kind of thing in the ‘70’s and the ‘80’s,” says Cale of his early career. “I’ve gone to the other direction now that all that’s become popular. Been there done that! They didn’t call it unplugged in those days but that is what it was.”
Cale says that, despite the fact that he has already been there, he enjoys the current fad for the ‘unplugged’ style of recording.
“I was glad to see folks starting to appreciate music that is not totally in your face all of the time,” he says.
While Cale established a reputation for his laidback, naturalistic approach to music, Guitar Man will probably surprise many fans with its use of electronics. Apart from James Cruce’s drums and Christine Lakeland’s guitar on the opening ecologically loaded ‘Death In The Wilderness,’ all of the instrumentation is provided by Cale and his guitar synthesiser.
“I do a lot of electronic stuff now,” says Cale of his latest album that was recorded in his home studio and features Cale on most instruments. One suspects that his fondness for working in his own studio has a lot to do with the fact that he can work at his own pace and need not rely on others.
“There is a fascination about electronics,” explains Cale of his latest foray in the studio. “It is an art form in itself.”
Despite the electronics – heard most notably on the opening eco-aware song – there is plenty of classic J.J. Cale to be found on the new album.
‘Lowdown’ is typical Cale shuffle, ‘Days Go By’ gives a jazzy feel to a song about smoking a certain substance while the traditional ‘Old Blue’ reprises a song that many might first have heard with The Byrds version during the Gram Parsons era.
“I have heard that song all my life, it’s an old folk song,” Cale says of ‘Old Blue.’ “I didn’t get quite the way the original went. I’ve changed some of the lyrics to fit my style. I like the song. I’m a big dog lover and animal lover. I have heard the song off and on in my subconscious for years.”
Surprisingly, Cale does few sessions for others, although I would suspect he could be in great demand. He has managed to produce the past few albums for John Hammond, appear on The Tractors debut album and even guest on Paul Simon’s Rhythm Of The Saints.
“I live way out in the country now,” says Cale, a self-styled gentleman farmer. “So even if the demand was there I probably couldn’t do it because it is too far away.”
While he has embraced technology in the studio, Cale is still trying to work out whether he needs to include more material on his CDs. Guitar Man clocks in at an economical thirty-eight minutes while its predecessor, Closer To You, revealed an almost robust 43 minutes in comparison. (Of course, in Cale’s case you can always play them twice to get your money’s worth!)
“The record company has complained to me about that,” says the guitarist. “I’m so oriented to doing three minute songs – that’s where I come from. Personally, I want to move onto something else. I come up in an era when if you didn’t do everything you had to say and do in about three minutes then they’d fade it out. I guess I need to change with the modern times and I’ll do that next time.”
As for touring, the ever-laidback Cale says he would love to come back to Australia and it is a distinct possibility if he can raise the energy to do any more touring.