By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Feb 11, 2010
J.J. Cale is the kind of guy who runs from the spotlight.
Over 35 years, there aren't many CDs. (A friend has said, “Cale is very busy being unbusy.”)
At most, 50 live performances a year. (I once saw him perform with his gaze on a music stand. No music on it. Can you spell p-e-r-v-e-r-s-e?)
His new release is his first studio recording in eight years. (“It doesn't seem that long,” he says.)
Here he is, on the subject of his new CD: “I played with some of these guys 40 years ago and I tell you, I don't think there's anyone on this record who's under 60 years old."
That's really going to appeal to the young, doncha think?
The fact is, J.J, Cale is a cult favorite. Like Nick Drake. Or Jeff Buckley. The difference, of course, is that he's quite alive --- and continuing to make the same kind of brilliant music he has all along. Shuffle blues. Okie rock. Back-porch acoustic funk. Stuff you have to tap your feet to. Stuff that hooks into your head and won't let go. Immortal stuff.
If you've heard of J.J. Cale, it's most likely because Eric Clapton recorded a song of his in 1970. It's called “Cocaine.” (Clapton would go on to have a pretty big hit with another Cale song: “After Midnight .”) No matter where you are or what you're doing, bet you can hear the guitar riff right now….
Cale was pleased by Clapton's recording. His pal, producer Audie Ashworth, was more than pleased. "I phoned Cale," Ashworth recalled, "and I said, 'It might be time for you to make your move. Do an album.' I said, 'Get your songs together.' He said, 'I'll do a single.' I said, 'It's an album market.' He said, 'I don't have that many songs,' so I said, 'Write some.' Three or four months later he called me. He said, 'I got the songs.' He drove in. He was driving a Volkswagen this time. He came in with his dog. He played me all those songs."
That blend -- country, blues and rockabilly --- was like nothing else in music. The pros listened. (So did Mark Knopfler, who would base a great deal of the sound of Dire Straits on Cale.) He got booked on a tour with Stevie Winwood and Traffic tour. On his days off, he'd fly back to Tulsa.
You can hear how self-effacing he is in the way he records.
As Ashworth has noted, “Cale always wanted the voice mixed down. We'd be sitting at the board and both of us were trying to get our hands on the faders. He was always pulling back the fader on the vocal. He'd mix his voice back in the bed. He said it made you want to lean into the music instead of leaning back from it. It would pull people in. He had definite ideas about mixes."
Maybe that's not self-effacing. That's exactly what Chopin did. Because you do lean in. And you lap up every note --- of which, because Cale is very very smart, there are very very few.
Where to start? The guy's a Master: If you like one, you'll like them all. But start with “The Very Best.” Twenty songs. No lemons.