Twenty-five years from Tulsa

The 'journeys and arrivals' of America are ingrained in JJ Cale's music like mud. Humming mud. So what's an old Okie to do in the digital age?
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The Independent Culture
Fifteen minutes before JJ Cale is due to take the famous stage of Manhattan's Carnegie Hall, a wiry, hobo-ish figure can be seen shuffling across the varnished floorboards testing the guitars and amplifiers. People are still milling around the auditorium, most of them here to catch a rare show by the headliners, The Band, but a fair number have already taken their seats. Some of them, one assumes, must be familiar with the recorded works of JJ Cale, which at the very least inhabit the same musical hinterland as that of The Band. Yet almost nobody appears to realise that the shuffling figure on the stage is Cale himself.

It's all part of the effect, of course. For the best part of 25 years, Jean-Jacques Cale has assumed the role of American rock's anonymous drifter - a shadowy Everyman, a dishevelled figure you might have spotted once at some roadside diner. As he falls into a subdued, cursory version of his signature song, "After Midnight", he isn't giving very much more away. The famous voice that gave new depth to the Seventies phrase "laid back" is barely a parched whisper now, testimony to the diffidence that Cale brings to the business of live performance - or at least to the dilemma of presenting himself as any kind of star. And yet Cale's very recalcitrance is mesmerising, as though the implicit distrust of overt emotion has itself induced in him a higher level of emotional engagement.

Seated in these improbably formal surroundings, one has a sudden and jolting sense of what Peter Guralnick once termed the "journeys and arrivals of American musicians". Almost 40 years ago, "Johnnie Cale" and his band the Valentines were playing the same honkytonk circuit around Texas and Oklahoma as The Band's Levon Helm, then drumming with the rockabilly renegade Ronnie Hawkins. Four decades later, both men have somehow parlayed their canny, roughhewn Southernness into a concert hall which usually reverberates to the sound of Brahms and Mozart.

"The geography has something to do with my music," Cale tells me in his hotel room on the day before the show. "Where I grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, it wasn't the south-east and it wasn't the deep south and it wasn't quite the south-west either. For many years, too, America was so migratory: people would uproot and move, and with them would come their musical culture, which they'd blend with the culture of wherever they landed. That's kinda what happened to me: I listened to jazz, country, R&B, rock 'n' roll. And when I sat down to write a song, I had all these influences comin' through."

In the Los Angeles of the early-to-mid Sixties, Cale found work not only as a for-hire guitar gunslinger in the bars of the San Fernando Valley but as a studio engineer in the employ of Leon Russell's Texan boss "Snuff" Garrett. Garrett was the mastermind behind such West Coast pop fluff as Bobby Vee and Gary Lewis & the Playboys, with Russell doing most of the hard graft in the studio. When psychedelia struck LA with the force of an earthquake, Snuff suggested Cale round up a posse of his cronies and cut an album of "psychedelic hits of the day" - "Eight Miles High", "Sunshine Superman" and the like.

Released under the unforgettably dumb name Leather Coated Minds, the 1966 album Trip Down Sunset Strip inadvertently spawned the song that would later change the course of Cale's destiny. " 'After Midnight' was originally an instrumental that was meant to go on that album. Later on I pulled the track back out, put words to it, and overdubbed a vocal," Cale explains. Released by Garrett on Liberty, the single later found its way into the possession of Eric Clapton, whose bass player, Carl Radle, was yet another of the Okies who'd made LA their home. "If Eric hadn't cut that song," Cale grins, "I'd probably still be playin' bowling alleys in Tulsa."

By a neat coincidence, the phone rings at this point in the conversation and turns out to be Audie Ashworth, the Nashville DJ turned record producer who first suggested Cale capitalise on Clapton's cover of "After Midnight" and "spec" his own album. Cale and Ashworth are in the process of putting together a box-set that will be released by Phonogram next year - tracks and out-takes from vintage masterworks like Naturally, Really, Okie and Troubadour. "Audie picked all the hip musicians who played on those albums," says Cale. "They were the demo players in Nashville, and they had more of a rock 'n' roll feel about them. We hit grooves that maybe any one of us wouldn't have hit - the whole was greater than the sum of the parts."

Ironically, Cale has spent much of the ensuing decade and a half trying to shake off the "downhome, laid-back" tag affixed to him in the Seventies. "People would always say, 'JJ's got a kind of hummin' mud sound', and I've tried to clean some of it up. Now people ask me why I don't cut one o' them unplugged albums, and I go, well, that's what I did first, and I had to move on. Seems my audience preferred me as the old acoustic guy, but when I went back to LA in 1980, it was a cultural shock, and that changed the way I made my records."

Listening to "Death in the Wilderness", the eco-conscious opening track on his new album, Guitar Man, one is hard pressed to recognise the JJ Cale of "Call Me the Breeze" or "Same Old Blues". The hi-tech programming and digital feel are very far from the sound of those hip Nashville pickers of yesteryear; if anything, they're closer to the sound of latterday Dire Straits, the band who made a stadium career out of Cale's sound. "Ever since 1972 there's always been a coupla tracks I've done by myself, and this is kind of the apex of that. I pretty much manufactured it by myself. I got rid of my analogue stuff about six or seven years ago and moved into the digital realm. My live performance is different - I don't even try to emulate anything in the studio. Makin' records is one art form and playin' live is another. It's like the difference between makin' a movie and doin' theatre."

One thing that hasn't changed - and almost certainly never will - is that spooked, mumbling voice. I ask Cale where on earth it came from. "I knew that if you wrote songs you had to sing 'em to somebody. But I didn't want to sell 'em to the public, I wanted to sing 'em to more people like Clapton. People said my records were 'funky' and 'muddy', but the truth is they were just demos. I figured if you polished 'em up too much, people wouldn't wanna sing 'em."

And the famous JJ Cale mystique?

"It just happened that way. I did not try to figure out a good marketing ploy. People said I stood over in the corner with my back to the audience, but that was because we didn't rehearse and the band didn't know the tunes. See, I've just tried to live normally. I don't jive myself. I play the guitar and write songs for a living like the maid cleans this room. If I'm original, it's by accident - it comes from not being able to do what other guys can do. I tried to sound like Chet Atkins but I couldn't pick it all out. And not doing that, it started to sound like me."

'Guitar Man' is released this week on Virgin/ Delabel