Rollin’ on

At 70 years old, the elusive JJ Cale releases new disc and hits the road

Photo By jane richey

JJ Cale ain’t one to seek out the spotlight. Though his current string of West Coast shows in support of his new CD, Roll On, is his first in five years, Cale is doing what he’s done for more than four decades—applying his craft of finger-picking and clever lyrics without much fanfare or promotion. The beguiling guitarist, crooner and originator of the so-called “Tulsa sound” likes it that way.

“Fame elevates your ego to the point where you start believing your own bullshit,” Cale proclaims in his official bio. “I’d like to have the fortune, but I don’t care too much about the fame.”

Between stops in Medford, Ore., and Fresno, Cale and his five-piece band will make a whistle stop at the Paradise Performing Arts Center on April 14.

You may not think you know the music of this 70-year-old Oklahoma native, but you do. Cale debuted back in 1958 with a couple of long-forgotten singles, but his career sprang to life in 1971, with his defining album, Naturally. The record contained a minor hit for Cale, the lazy, slide-accentuated “Crazy Mama,” but it also included a song of his that Eric Clapton had already turned into a rock staple, “After Midnight,” and one that Lynyrd Skynyrd would make famous, “Call Me the Breeze.” Clapton also turned “Cocaine,” from Cale’s 1976 album Troubadour, into a major FM hit, and many other artists, from Mark Knopfler to Neil Young to Widespread Panic, also have recorded Cale’s songs.

Cale’s songwriting tales of sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll have evolved into more reflective subjects, as evidenced on the new disc’s “Old Friend,” in which he croons, “I hear all the old folks are gone; I guess we’re the ones now.”

CN&R requests for an interview with the elusive Cale were politely declined, as were others, we were told, including the BBC.

“JJ Cale appreciates being able to be a normal person who can go about his life without having a spotlight focused on him,” explained Mike Kappus, president and founder of the Rosebud Agency, a 30-artist booking company that represents Cale. “He enjoys what he does with regard to playing guitar, singing, songwriting, engineering and producing. I think he’d just rather go about doing what he does as well as he can and not be put in the awkward position of talking about himself extensively or being put in the spotlight any more than necessary.”

Clapton, in particular, has maintained an affinity for Cale’s material and style, which is as riveting and compelling as it is loose and relaxed. While Clapton reached ultimate success, he also tended toward becoming too polished and a little synthetic. Cale’s coarse, red-dirt-on-his-shoes persona has helped bring Clapton back to his roots. In 2006, the two collaborated on The Road to Escondido, a fusion of rock, blues, folk and country that earned them a Grammy—Cale’s first—for Best Contemporary Blues Album. Cale penned 11 of the disc’s 14 songs and also acted as engineer and co-producer. Clapton also lends a hand on three songs on Cale’s new disc.

“Before I go under the ground, I want to make a JJ Cale album, with him at the helm,” Clapton had said in a 2005 PBS interview as he sat in Cale’s Southern California home studio. Cale’s expectations for that album were humble. “We’re just trying to make music we like, and if we like it, chances are someone else might like it—we hope.”

With royalty checks still coming in, and with the modest success he’s enjoyed from his vast body of solo material, Cale’s been lucky enough to be financially comfortable, while maintaining his partial anonymity.

“There are a lot of individuals in the world like this but it is just unusual to find people in the entertainment industry who don’t pursue greater fame and fortune if it’s available to them,” Kappus said. “He’s just a rare person who wants to retain the low-key lifestyle he has while doing what he loves to do.”