JJ Cale couldn't do an interview with The Stranger due to rehearsal commitments. Wait, JJ Cale needs to rehearse? Absurd.
You see, Cale, 70, has been recording for nearly 50 years. Besides that, the Oklahoma native's music seems to ooze out of him so easily, it might as well be an involuntary bodily function. Still, I suppose he does have a band to put through its paces.
While an interview rejection is disappointing, it allows this Cale fan more space to lavish love on the man's music.
Like very few musicians in history, Cale has become a genre unto himself. Some artists strive to reinvent themselves with every new work. Cale is totally comfortable doing his own thing, with minor variations, year after year. Like the character in one of his best-known and oft-covered compositions, "Call Me the Breeze," Cale "keep[s] blowing down the road... Ain't no change in the weather/Ain't no change in me."
Those lyrics encapsulate the core paradox of Cale's art: He keeps rollin' along, but he remains relatively static as he progresses. Ordinarily, critics disparage such a stagnant MO. However, Cale thrives within limited parameters. There's something to be said for finding a signature sound and honing it till it becomes an artful science, while spinning minute variations on that approach.
As a proponent of the so-called Tulsa Sound, Cale has commingled rockabilly, country, bluegrass, jazz, and blues in multiple combinations, while often laying down a deceptively funky undercarriage (see "Soulin'," "I'll Kiss the World Goodbye," and "Right Down Here" off 1972's Really, "Crying" off 1974's Okie, and "Ride Me High" and "Let Me Do It to You" off 1976's Troubadour, all of which are ripe for sampling by enterprising producers).
Another Cale paradox is his ability to write songs that chug at a swift pace while not seeming to break a sweat (unusual for a country-blues artist, he was also one of the first musicians to employ drum machines on record). Songs like "Call Me the Breeze," "Anyway the Wind Blows," and the bluegrass barn-burners "If You're Ever in Oklahoma" and "Playing in the Street" propel you pell-mell down the freeway or off the beaten track with utmost haste while still retaining an essential laid-backness, a "hurry up and relax" feeling—hick motorik, if you will. You'd think a song titled "Crazy Mama" would reek of rock-and-roll freak-out, but Cale renders it as a near-comatose blues tune, with a beautifully articulate bottleneck solo to capture the hormonal uprising the title character likely caused. For such sublime illusions and perversity, Cale deserves to be inducted to the coolness hall of fame.
Perhaps the biggest paradox of Cale's canon is "Cocaine," which Eric Clapton blew up into a hit and classic-rock staple. The song expresses ambiguous feelings about said white powder (it's a masterpiece of lyrical evasiveness), but it's bolstered by a huge, slack-elastic riff and played at a tempo more akin to a heroin nod than a coke fidget. From such paradoxes—and ever-accruing royalties from this as well as Clapton's equally ubiquitous take on "After Midnight" and loads of JJ songs covered by popular artists—Cale has lived a comfortable life. (Artists who have recorded Cale songs include Bob Dylan, Spiritualized, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Sergio Mendes, Captain Beefheart, Bryan Ferry, Freddie King, Waylon Jennings, Beck, Santana, Daddy's Favourite, and Wire; French producer Joakim recently reedited "Ride Me High" into a killer cosmic-disco shuffle.)
While heavies like Neil Young and Mark Knopfler rate Cale as a stellar guitarist, JJ's voice is an underrated asset. His singing possesses a grainy warmth similar to fellow Caucasian soul men like Mose Allison and Dr. John; it's the opposite of the straining blowhardiness a lot of overcompensating ofays use (I'm looking at you, Joe Cocker and Bono). Cale's husky whisper is one of earth's most comforting sounds, and its understated sensual tone perfectly complements his guitar playing, which is supernaturally delicate even at its most urgent.
Of course, time diminishes most everyone's vocal cords, and Cale's pipes have lost some of their low-key, lusty luster on his new album, Roll On. That said, Cale's singing range was never expansive (nor did it need to be), and he's weathered the years better than most musicians in his age bracket. Roll On reveals a heavier jazz influence than previous Cale opuses, but the man's laid-back essence endures. Cuts like "Down to Memphis," "Fonda-Lina" (which recalls "Ride Me High"), "Cherry Street" (which contains a sweet pedal-steel solo), and "Roll On" continue Cale's knack for tracks that evoke boxcars rushing over the countryside. His music still makes you feel as if you're travelin' light, free as the breeze.
No need to call the doctor. Just let JJ do it to you.