Because he was the first folkie to use a drum machine, because he wrote "Cocaine" and "After Midnight" and "They Call Me the Breeze," because the laconic Oklahoma freight hopper would never make the claim himself, here it is: J.J. Cale's music is essential. There are few artists as unsung who have been so influential over the decades. There are even fewer unsung, influential artists who've put out as many arresting albums as Cale.
His 1971 debut, Naturally, offers a proper introduction to his sound: lean to the point of barely there, so laid back it's nearly narcotic. It contains two of the three aforementioned songs, later turned into hits by bands far more unsubtle than Cale's minimal shuffle-blues ensemble (not to mention more opportunist than Cale the antistar). It's a lo-fi classic, but Cale went on to more interesting things that fully coalesced with his fourth album.
Troubadour, released in 1976, contains one of the best one-two-three-song hat tricks of all time. Skip opener "Hey Baby" and start with song two, "Travelin' Light"—its ice-cool disco folk (correct: disco folk) is all staccato guitars and cowbell and understated xylophone, adding up to a song light-years ahead of its time. Next is "You Got Something," its melody so tender and blissful that its lecherous leering at the other woman is easily mistaken for true romance. And then "Ride Me High" is pure Okie sex funk, Cale's papery soul-whisper scandalous: "Higher, higher, higher, how high can we go?/Ride me high this morning, ride me high some more." In the background, an analog-electronic bass phase-shifts, its broad low-end plus fuzzy guitars countering the rest of the tune's clipped percussion; like "Travelin' Light," the Widespread Panic version is often mistaken for the original. Taken back-to-back-to-back, those three songs comprise everything Cale's music can be—reckless and debauched while impeccably cool and detached. Not to mention Cale's wicked guitar and Audie Ashworth's perfect production. Goddamn, Cale is the man.
Other highlights: the cabaret noir blues of "Hold On," slow and swinging; the near-rock grind of "I'm a Gypsy Man," its lyrics a hobo manifesto; the horn-laden, Sly-stoned groove of "Let Me Do It to You" (almost an instrumental; the repeated title is the song's only lyric), sampled wholesale 25 years later on Mark Farina's Mushroom Jazz 3; syrupy dub-folk closer "Cherry," as ethereal and sparse as outer space.
Of course, Clapton's "Cocaine" is more famous, but heard in the sinister, shifty context of Troubadour the song makes perfect sense for Cale. The same can be said for the rest of his oeuvre: Hearing Cale's songs as they were meant to be heard sheds new light on his importance, stealing some back from all the bands that have since borrowed his tunes.