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Published: 2004/07/30
by Mike Greenhaus

JJ Cale: Still ‘Travelin’ Light’

JJ Cale has written some of the rock and roll era's most enduring anthems. Yet, for many modern music fans, Cale's name remains little more than a songwriting credit.

Born in Oklahoma City, and bred in Tulsa's schools, Cale has spent the past four decades refining his rock and roll craft, blossoming into one of the world's most covered artists along the way. First gaining notoriety as a guitarist in an early incarnation of Delaney & Bonnie, Cale issued his first popular single in 1965, a boogie-based rocker called "After Midnight." Quickly earning the acclaim of George Harrison, Waylon Jennings, and Eric Clapton, Cale spent the latter part of the sixties touring the country and tinkering in studios, while also forming the "summer of love" outfit the Leather Coated Minds. In 1970 Clapton included a take on "After Midnight" on his own solo bow, turning the Cale-cut into an international hit. Finally issuing his debut album Naturally at the tail end of 1971, Cale kick-started his solo career with another take on "After Midnight" and his hit single "Crazy Mama."

While Cale continued to reinterpret his canon through a steady stream of live dates, the guitarist's songs slowly worked their way into America's musical lexicon. In 1974, Lynyrd Skynyrd included Cale's "Call Me the Breeze" on their sophomore effort, Second Helping. Meanwhile, Clapton continued to turn Cale's cuts into hits, breaking into the Billboard charts with covers of "Cocaine," and the studio-centerpiece "I'll Make Love to You Anytime." Earning nods from everyone from Johnny Cash to the Jerry Garcia Band, Cale watched his influence widen, while also playing around with his arrangements at his live shows.

Somewhat press shy, Cale maintained a low profile throughout the 1980s. Yet, the lauded songwriter earned a new generation of fans through Widespread Panic, who included Cale's "Travelin' Light" on their seminal Space Wrangler. Later blending Cale's "Ride Me High" into their repertoire, Cale cemented his connection with Widespread Panic by opening for, and later collaborating with, the Georgia-bred group on June 25, 2002.

After an eight-year studio reprieve, Cale issued his most recent album, To Tulsa and Back, earlier this spring. Though the guitarist jokes that the disc features "no one under sixty," it has made waves on the jam band circuit. A series of modern compositions, Cale also takes a stab at current politics and environmental concerns, along with his trademark blues-rock.

In early June, Cale also joined the likes of Buddy Guy, Jimmie Vaughan, and Robert Randolph at Eric Clapton's Crossroads Guitar Festival. Continuing to foster their working relationship, Clapton sat in for the majority of Cale's set, riffing on classics cuts like "After Midnight" and "Cocaine." caught up with JJ Cale shortly before his show at Crossroads. Like his guitar style, Cale speaks in a fluid fashion, rambling poetically like the legion of jambands he's influenced.

M- On To Tulsa and Back, you seem to weave politics into your prose. Did you have a political agenda while writing this album?

JJ- It's unusually for me, but yes. "The Problem" is a song you can apply to politics. Or, you can apply it to your boss or your old lady. But, most people take it as political. The album also deals with the environment. I haven't done anywhere near as much as Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne or any of those people, but I've always been into protecting the environment.

M-To Tulsa and Back is your first album in eight years. Did you work out these songs live before you entered the studio?

JJ- I hardly ever do songs at a gig that I don't have out on record. Of course, I'll do other people's songs, but of the songs that I've written, I generally only do the one's I've recorded. You can tell what people like live: they holler at you and scream. If a song looks like it's being liked, I'll learn it again [laughs]. Because I am a songwriter, I have to go back and relearn my own songs [laughs].

M- In concert, you tend to reinterpret you studio compositions. Do you ever model your own reworkings after the artists that have covered your songs?

JJ- Oh yeah. Whether it's "Travelin' Light" or "Ride Me High," I hardly do it live like I do on the record. The record is one form of art and the live show in another. Generally, I'll lean more towards their version live because the records I make by myself are hard to duplicate live. [In the studio], I use electronics and that sort of stuff. Sometimes, on stage, my song' don't even sound like anyone else's records. They just sound completely different.

M- Some of your early recordings are among the first rock cuts to incorporate drum machines. When did you start dabbling with electronics?

JJ- Actually, I used an electric drum machine on my first record because I couldn't afford a drummer. I think "Crazy Mama," which was a single on my first album, used an electric drum machine. Since then, I've seen it become very popular, especially in hip-hop, rap and on modern records. Basically, along with being a songwriter and guitar player, I'm an engineer. I did my time in the studio as an engineer recording other people. So when it came around to me doing my own thing, I used anything I could get away with. I had this electric drum machine and knew Roger Linn, an electronic engineer kind of a guy. He invented that first digital electronic drum machine. The one I had on the original record was a Japanese beat-box and then Roger went and sampled drums and put it in. In the early 1970s all kinds of people discovered the electric drum machine and they have mainly used Roger's unit since.

M- Widespread Panic has worked several JJ Cale songs into their set. Tell us about your first Panic experience.

JJ- I was playing this outdoor concert and went and did a radio interview to plug the show. The DJ put Widespread Panic's record on—-I had never heard of them, but they were playing my song. They really weren't that big then and, as the years progressed, they got huge. Then they asked me to open one of their shows in 2002. They are a great band. I was working solo, carrying a drummer and a guitar player around with me. I just went out and opened their show for thirty minutes. Then they asked me to come out and perform. I asked them, "What tune do you want to do?" They said, "Well, Ride Me High.'" It's a one-cord song and, of course, you don't need to rehearse a one-cord song – plus we both knew it. So there was no rehearsal. I also opened for Phish at one time, though I didn't know who they were. They said, "Do you want to open for Phish?" I said, "Is that Country Joe and the Fish" [laughs]. They said, "No, this is a new group—- they are a jamband." They felt bad about me not having a full band, so the bass player [Mike] Gordon came out and played bass with us.

M- Speaking of jambands, your early work seems to include an element of improvisation.

JJ- We used to do the jamband kind of thing, but we didn't call it that, right? We used to extend the songs and get in the groove. I write jazz songs, polka, songs, rock and roll—everything. Sometimes, I'll even take a song and turn it into a country thing. I just write songs and say, well, "I'll put it in this bag or that bag." Jambands can do that toothey can take a heavy metal song and turn it into a jazz song. I originally wrote "Cocaine" in a Mose Allison-style. The producer I was generally working with at the time was named Audie Ashworth. He said, "John, I really like that song but no one will hear it if you keep it as a jazz thing. Why don't you do it as more of a rock thing?"

M- What was your working relationship with Waylon Jennings like?

JJ- I've lived in Nashville for quite a few years and I knew Waylon. I met him in the studiohis wife Jessi Colter cut one of my songs and I played with her. I also played a couple of gigs with him. We never got to be real close buddies, but we got to know each other well and had a mutual admiration for each other. He cut several of my songs. I [also] did a thing with the Crickets, Buddy Holly's old band four or five years ago. Eric Clapton played on it as well.

M-Jerry Garcia often worked "After Midnight" into his solo set. Did you ever perform with Garcia?

JJ- No. I knew of Jerry and I am a big admirer of his. He was a real soulful cat. There had been two or three offers for me and him to get together. He got together with all sorts of people, like Johnny Cash. Somewhere along the line we were going to get together, but we never did. I didn't know his version of "After Midnight" at the time.

M- Do you change your current set list nightly?

JJ- I end up doing some of the standards every night, but I generally change the set. It all depends on the type of place I'm playing. If I am playing a small theater, I'll do the set in one sort of vein. If it's a bunch of young kids who have only heard of me through Widespread Panic, I'll psyche myself up to play another way—-depending on how loud they are [laughs]. I don't rehearse really. These guys have been playing with me on and off for thirty years. They are all from my hometown. If we don't know it by now, we don't know it [laughs]. Sometimes I will catch something in a jamband fashion and put it in the middle of a song.

M- Of all the shows you’ve preformed since your last studio album, which concert sticks out the most in your mind?

JJ- The Dallas gig I played with Widespread Panic. In the United States, I'll play in front of anywhere from 200 to 700 people. Then when you open for somewhere you're playing in front of several thousand people. Sometimes, I'll play like Joe's little jazz joint in Cleveland where there are 200 people and we don't do anything wrong. It really doesn't have anything to do with how many people are there, but when you're playing in front of that many people, it sticks out in your head. That's kind of where I get in with the jambands: we throw it all up there and see what works. That's what jamming is. I remember times when everything sounded wonderful and times when I am in front of 10,000 people and I can't remember the words to "After Midnight."

M- Tell us about your time with Delaney & Bonnie.

JJ- We were playing house parties in Los Angeles in the 1960s. Delaney is really a great singer and so is Bonnie. They didn't really get that famous at the time, but were great singers. I played rhythm with them when they were putting things together. Bonnie sang in that kind of Janis Joplin style. Eric Clapton later joined up with them. He's [since] cut four of my songs and a couple of them are hits.

M-What is the most meaningful compliment you’ve received for a fellow rocker?

Right before George Harrison died, he called me. I had never talked to him in my life and he called me four or five months before he died. A friend of mine was making him a guitar and put us in touch. We made small talk and discussed Ravi Shankar and such. He said, "You know, I really love that first album you made. I have it in my car. But, have you made any albums since then?" We all sort of laughed. Of course, I've made nine albums since then, but he was still locked on my first album.

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