It amazes me that I still have the J.J. Cale conversation. You know, the one that occurs after the neophyte says they’ve never heard of him and as soon as you mention “After Midnight,” “Cocaine,” “Travelin’ Light,” “Call Me The Breeze” and “Magnolia,” their eyes focus and they say, “I thought those were Clapton/Widespread Panic/Lynyrd Skynyrd/The Band/Santana/Bryan Ferry tunes.” While the constant edification annoys those in the know, it’s been a blessing to the man himself. As he explains when mourning the passing of his friend Johnny Cash, a man who also covered Cale, “Johnny, Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Sun Records, that was the high point for music, but by the end, Johnny became more famous for being Johnny, and I never wanted that burden.”
This aversion to fame has been a constant with Cale. After “Crazy Mama” went big on the charts he found himself opening for Traffic on a nationwide tour at the height of the band’s popularity. On his off days he flew all the way back to Tulsa to keep himself centered. It’s no wonder, then, that Cale’s latest is titled, To Tulsa and Back, for he’s once again returned home to find his muse. Eight years since his last studio album, the record is a tumbleweed trek from his present stoop on the water-starved outskirts of the California desert to his Oklahoma birthplace. While the album was recorded in Tulsa with a revolving group of old friends, his new song “Stone River” centers on the arid nature of his new environs and for the first time he uses his mic as a bully pulpit for environmental change. “Water is scarcer than oil out here,” Cale says, “and with the way things are going down, all the rivers are drying up. Tempers start to flare when the water goes.”
His concern with the human state continues in a locomotive shuffle called “The Problem,” a not-so-subtle wake-up call to the “man in charge.” As it says in the song, “The man in charge has got to go, / ’cause he dances around the problem, boy, / and the problem is the man in charge, you know.”
When asked about his newer subject matter Cale offers, “You write what you know, and all my early albums were about love, sex, cars and a lot of songs about drugs. That’s what I knew as a 30-year-old man, but hell, I’m 65 now. I try not to preach, but this is what I know about in my old age. But I still like to write songs about women, too. You know I like that song by Juvenile, ‘Back That Azz Up’; Great production.”
It’s clear Cale is not one to rush things, but he also believes you can’t dwell on trying to make something perfect or else you lose the scent. As a producer, he’s like a molting coydog, tame enough to shed his tough demeanor while sunning on the porch, but still half wild. This is clearly epitomized by his trademark loping guitar leads, behind-the-beat hang-jaw drawl, and his one-or-two-take philosophy when it comes to recording. When I chide him about his feeling long in the tooth, he quickly counters, “I did my share of young livin’, but at one point you have to slow up and join the spit and whittle club, so you can keep playin’ and hangin’ with the band.”
To prove the point, Cale now finds himself on a worldwide tour, including a stop at Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festival in Dallas where he shared the stage with the likes of B.B. King, Jimmie Vaughn, Roger Cray, Buddy Guy, Robert Randolph and Mr. Slowhand himself. Finally, when asked if he’s still happy being J.J. Cale, he mutters, “My music may be laid back, but after 40 years in the business, if I’m not playing a guitar watching the sun go down… I feel frayed, itchy and a bit ornery. But my ideal day is still being alive.” With that another edifying J.J. Cale conversation comes to an end.