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Laying Low

The Elusive J. J. Cale Releases Possibly His Final Opus

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 2/25/2009

The popular myth about the Velvet Underground is that the band never sold many records, but everyone who bought one started a band. As exaggerations go, that's not too far from the truth. Pete Seeger once told me that Woody Guthrie hardly sold any records while he was alive, and yet today, he's better known than someone like Peter Frampton, who sold millions. And that's no exaggeration at all.

Guthrie and Lou Reed's legendary bands aren't the only acts with an influence way out of proportion to their sales. Professor Longhair, Jonathan Richman, Laura Nyro, Gram Parsons, even the Ramones never had any real hits, but each had an enormous impact on American music. Unlike, say, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, the Beatles, or Michael Jackson, who influenced pop culture via their inescapable omnipresence, these more obscure acts did it by reaching only a few people. But they were the right people--tastemakers such as musicians, critics, and passionate music fans--and the impact on these few was profound.

J.J. Cale is such a figure. Most people won't recognize his name, but he had such an enormous impact on three musicians that they modeled their post-1972 careers largely on Cale's example of slippery country-blues. That those three fans were named Eric Clapton, Dickey Betts, and Mark Knopfler is a measure of Cale's unacknowledged influence. His songs have been recorded by Clapton ("Cocaine"), Jerry Garcia ("After Midnight"), Waylon Jennings ("Clyde"), Lynyrd Skynyrd ("Same Old Blues"), the Allman Brothers ("Call Me the Breeze"), the Band ("Crazy Mama"), Maria Muldaur ("Cajun Moon"), Poco ("Magnolia"), Santana ("The Sensitive Kind"), and Widespread Panic ("Travelin' Light"), and dozens more have aped Cale's counter-intuitive blend of funky syncopation and laconic vocals.

Cale's new album, Roll On (Rounder), offers a dozen more songs in the same vein, but several of them are just as infectious in their sly tunefulness, burbling pulse, and off-handed commentary as his best known tunes. "Laid back" is the term most often applied to Cale, but it's misleading, for the secret of Cale's music is the contrast between his sleepy tenor and his jittery guitar riffs. Anyone can sound relaxed in calm surroundings, but to sound relaxed in tense circumstances is a rare gift, and that's why Cale is so endlessly fascinating.

Cale got a late start on his career; he was already 32 when Clapton cut "After Midnight" in 1970 and was 33 when he released his own debut album, Naturally, in 1971. It was a masterpiece that skimmed the cream from more than a decade of songwriting, including five of his best known songs: "After Midnight," "Magnolia," "Call Me the Breeze," "Crazy Mama," and "Clyde." He never quite matched it again, but he has released 14 more albums of new material, all of them full of well-crafted variations on the same basic sound, and all of them with two or three songs that are really special. Clapton has been a consistent supporter and even recorded a 2006 duo album with Cale, the Grammy-winning The Road to Escondido.

So why has Cale remained so obscure while Clapton and Knopfler have achieved such fame with virtually the same music? For one, as limited as Clapton's and Knopfler's voices are, they're decidedly stronger and more versatile than Cale's. And while Cale is every bit as good a guitarist as his two heirs, he is far less likely to step forward with a showy, crowd-pleasing solo. That's a symptom of the main reason for Cale's obscurity: his career-long evasion of fame. He rarely allows his photo on his album covers; he tours very infrequently, and he avoids the press. When asked about an interview for this story, his exasperated publicist said, "He did two interviews for this album, decided he'd said all he had to say and refused to do anymore."

Cale turned 70 in December, and the four best songs on Roll On confront the end stage of life. He contemplates the "Former Me," that "fancy man" who "was lighter on his feet." With its jaunty blues piano figure, the song seems to be poking fun at Cale's old age, but a sadness creeps into the vocal, as if he is mystified by the stranger staring back at him from his own past. "Old Friend" is one of Cale's loveliest country ballads, the double-tracked vocal tracing a melody full of affection and longing for a longtime pal. "Leaving in the Morning" is ostensibly a song about leaving your hometown for good and wishing farewell to all one's friends. As Cale leaves his guitar to one friend, his dog to another, and his job to a third, his self-assured vocal implies that he's not going to miss any of it, that he's glad to be going. Such assertions are belied, however, by the drawn-out, descending phrases of the guitars, suggesting sobs of regret.

It's not difficult to hear the song as a departure not from a town but from life itself, with all the mixed feelings that implies. It's as if Cale's same old drama of troubled circumstances, contrasted by calm demeanor, has been brought into sharper focus than ever by approaching mortality. The same feeling invests "Bring Down the Curtain," which is ostensibly about the last song of a show. Joined by Clapton and the Tractors' Steve Ripley on guitar, Cale suggests that the end of the show is not a stopping of the music--for the three guitarists keep pushing the swampy funk of the Tulsa sound ever forward--but a moving on to somewhere else.

This may or may not be the last album of Cale's career, but it's hard to imagine a more fitting final song for a final album than "Bring Down the Curtain." "It's dark outside," Cale drawls in a foreboding tone. "Enough is enough," he adds, "can't do it no more." The guitars suggest all the dread of a final show or a final year, but in the face of it all, Cale maintains his lifelong stoicism: "Leave it alone; slow it down easy, let it be gone, gone, gone."

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