J. J. Cale says he's flattered by countless covers
J. J. Cale has never talked to the press much, and he hasn't played a lot of concerts lately, either. When the reclusive blues-roots icon breaks from tradition and calls the Straight for an exclusive interview, he's setting out on his first tour in five years.
“I'm riding on a bus, so talk real loud,” he instructs while pulling out of L.A. en route to a gig in Petaluma, California. In keeping with the title of his 16th and latest album, Roll On, Cale will continue northward until he winds up in Vancouver.
“It's kind of a kick getting out with all these old guys,” notes the 70-year-old songwriting legend, referring to the members of his backing band. “We're sitting around telling stories about the past. That's what old men generally do, so we're having fun talking about things that are gone.”
Not everything in Cale's current sphere of conversation is gone, though. For one thing, there's those deathless songs he's written, which have been interpreted by countless artists over the years. He's been covered by everyone from Santana (“Sensitive Kind”) to Bryan Ferry (“Same Old Blues”), and from Lynyrd Skynyrd (“Call Me the Breeze”) to Beck (“Magnolia”). But he's best known for a couple of tracks that Eric Clapton had hits with in the '70s, “After Midnight” and “Cocaine”.
“I'm a songwriter, man, and that's basically how I make my living,” drawls the Oklahoma-born troubadour. “My performing and my singing leave much to be desired, but having other people record my songs is the most flattering thing that can happen. Plus, I mean, Eric has paid my rent for the last 30 years.”
Clapton also recorded an album with Cale—2006's Grammy-winning The Road to Escondido—and plays guitar on the new disc's title track. Fifteen other musicians also contribute, but the majority of the instruments are still played by Cale, who carries on the DIY ethic that's characterized his work ever since his 1971 debut, Naturally.
“I was doin' that 40 years ago,” he states, “and I'm still doin' it now. Whether it's good or bad, I don't know.”
I'm gonna go with good, and people like Clapton and Mark Knopfler—who made a career out of copping Cale's laid-back vocals and economical guitar style—would agree. As well as guitar, bass, drums, and keyboards, Roll On has him handling banjo and, on the chugging boogie number “Cherry Street”, what sounds like pedal-steel guitar but is actually a standard electric guitar through a DigiTech Whammy pedal. “I actually fooled myself with that,” he quips.
The shuffle rhythms, simple melodies, and rootsy southern vibe Cale is known for all colour Roll On, which Rolling Stone praised as “supremely chill, utterly ageless”. His talent for stark, incisive lyrics comes through in the up-yours mentality of “Where the Sun Don't Shine”.
“When I was young I maybe wrote songs about sex and drugs and rock 'n' roll,” says Cale. “I'm 70 years old now, and that stuff doesn't really work, so I'm writing songs from a senior citizen's standpoint.”
It's a blessing for all music fans that, unlike a lot of his colleagues from the '70s, Cale has made it to grizzled-codger status. He may have composed the most popular drug song of all time, but he managed—unlike the once cocaine-crazy Clapton—to bypass the potentially fatal road to addiction.
“I didn't really get any success till I was about 30 years old,” he explains, “so I was old enough to avoid a lot of pitfalls of finding it at a young age. By the time I had success I was a middle-aged man, and I went, ”˜Oh, I'd never do that, 'cause that'll kill ya.' ”
J. J. Cale plays the sold-out Capilano Performing Arts Theatre on Friday (April 10).