A key architect of the Tulsa Sound and one of the most influential guitarists of the last fifty years.
Mention J.J. Cale to anyone with a passing interest in americana and they will immediately know the characteristic Cale laidback sound and know it is a foundation of the Tulsa Sound, they will also be familiar with some of Cale’s songs if only through the versions of various country and americana artists. What many music fans don’t fully appreciate is that in the early ‘70s there was significantly less new music released than we see today, most current artists didn’t have too large a back catalogue, and there were virtually no historical releases available. A consequence of this was that the albums that did get released were subject to potentially a lot more attention than is the case today. Also, the lack of access to historical music meant that music lovers would only get hints and glimmers of the historical background and influences of what was then-current music releases. Some of the glimmers came from the emerging country rock of The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers, the then new country rock of The Grateful Dead, Dylan and The Band were ubiquitous, and we had our own UK-based emerging American roots music thanks to Brinsley Schwarz. Some more enterprising roots music fans may have rooted out some more esoteric music, but for the general music fan, there was very limited information available on American roots music and even fewer available releases.
When J. J. Cale’s albums started to appear in 1971 with ‘Naturally’ he was viewed as the real thing, something his subsequent album titles, 1972’s ‘Really’ and ‘Okie’ reinforced, particularly when his picture was not used on any of his albums which only added to the aura of mystery and mystic. At the time, I don’t think many people necessarily understood where his music had come from, rather it was something that sprang fully formed and was seen as organic and real, with the music press at the time using words like “dusty”, “laidback”, and “back porch music” and referencing the Tulsa Sound, to describe the amalgam of rock’n’roll, blues, country, and jazz, with a sound and mix that had not been heard before. Cale achieved something of a commercial breakthrough in Europe with 1976’s ‘Troubadour’ and a supporting tour. In America, Cale had achieved some success with ‘Naturally’ and the single ‘Call Me The Breeze’, but subsequently he enjoyed a higher profile in Europe than in his own country.
While J.J. Cale remained a cult artist in America and Europe, albeit a fairly large cult, his reputation was enhanced by the number of cover versions of his song. And what is surprising is how broad the range of artists who covered Cale’s songs including rock musicians Eric Clapton, Nazareth, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Santana, Captain Beefheart, Bryan Ferry, Jerry Garcia, Widespread Panic, Phish, Tom Petty, and even jazzer Herbie Mann. His songs helped Waylon Jennings develop his outlaw sound and even Nashville Sound stalwart Chet Atkins covered him, and legendary songwriter Tom T. Hall dipped into the Cale songbook as did the Man In Black, Johnny Cash. Roots artists from The Band to Maria Muldaur and Poco to current americana acts Dylan LeBlanc, Lucinda Williams, and Lukas Nelson, and even bluegrass royalty The Seldom Scene got in on the act., Also, his guitar playing was so unique it materially influenced Eric Clapton, who built a career on Cale’s influence, Mark Knopfler and Neil Young. And we haven’t even mentioned his influence on the development of the Tulsa Sound and Oklahoma’s Red Dirt Music.
However, J. J. Cale was not simply the torch bearer of a root music genre, he was an innovator driven by commercial issues and his psychological and musical preferences. John Weldon Cale was born in Oklahoma City in 1938 and he was drawn to the guitar and sound recording from the start, moving to Los Angeles in 1964 following the trail pioneered by fellow Okie Leon Russell, working as a sound engineer for Russell and Snuff Garett, and playing guitar around the local club scene. While he learnt a lot about studio engineering and the art of the pop song from the mid-‘60s LA music scene, he wasn’t making any money and his attempts at any form of a career had failed miserably, so he returned to Tulsa in 1967 joining the band of local legend Don White. It was only following Eric Clapton’s recording of a 1966 Cale song, ‘After Midnight’, that he had another crack at launching his career after encouragement from friend and Nashville DJ Audie Ashworth who produced Cale from his second album ‘Really’ until the early ‘80s. His debut album ‘Naturally’ seemed to spring fully formed from nowhere, However, the unique sound that mixed country, blues, jazz, and rock’n’roll simply reflect the music Cale had been playing in the clubs of Tulsa before he went to Los Angeles. Also, most of them were recorded with the supporting musicians being paid demo rates, and the early tracks featured a drum machine because Cale couldn’t afford to pay for a real drummer. Cale was also not the biggest fan of his own voice which he ensured was buried in the mix along with his guitar adding to a unique sound, finally, a lot of the tracks were recorded at home with limited time in a professional studio. While ‘Naturally’ is a fan favourite it was not Cale’s, he accepted the quality of songs was high as they represented his songwriting output over many years, the limited budget and piecemeal recording meant his sound coalesced into his truly unique sound on subsequent albums, not on his debut. Also, Cale refused to lip-sync ‘Crazy Mama’ on American Bandstand which was a clear hint of his aversion to normal pop star success which he believed would turn his music-making into a proper job rather than a pleasure once he would have to meet a label’s demands for further successes.
Cale continued working with the cream of Tulsa, LA, Memphis, and Nashville musicians, recording their contributions in professional studios onto his home-recorded demos in most cases, and as a consequence, the particular engineering skills of Cale helped crystalise and maintain his sound across album and album, even when he started recording some of his songs completely digitally with no support musicians in the early ‘90s. J. J. Cale recorded a handful of covers during his career, including songs by Muddy Waters, Don Nix, Ray Price, Sonny Curtis, Roger Tillison, and Paul Craft which fit seamlessly alongside Cale’s own songs.
The fact that Cale wasn’t a bigger star was down to his dislike of the star system and the successful income stream he got from his song royalties, but what it did mean was that he was able to record the music he wanted to the way he wanted to, which ensured it is both a familiar and unique sound that has influenced music genres from country to rock as well as americana. Cale’s time in Los Angeles meant that his songs adhered to the format of early pop songs in length, and he knew about hooks. His dislike of his own vocals meant he engineered a unique layer sound that was both complex and multifaceted, while also sounding minimalistic. Apart from his songwriting and studio skills, J. J. Cale’s music was rooted in the musical mix of country, jazz, blues, and rock’n’roll that was the staple of the Tulsa club scene of the late’50s and early ‘60s and led to the development of the Tulsa sound in the ‘70s. Oh, and there was also the fact that his guitar playing brought a new style to roots guitar, as Neil Young has attested to. To say that J. J. Cale is one of the most influential artists of the last fifty years because of his songwriting, hybrid sound, and guitar playing is not an overestimation of his achievements which go beyond americana.