July 29, 2013: JJ Cale, the Oklahoma performer best known as a writer of songs for Eric Clapton, Lynyrd Skynrd, Tom Petty and others died last night after suffering a heart attack. He was 74. In this GEN F profile from 2004, Will Welch celebrates Cale’s late-career resurgence as an inspiration to jam bands, “road trip stretch-outs, parking lot smoke-outs and dorm room make-outs.”
It’s startling to hop into a friend’s truck after school and, instead of hearing the usual soaring jam that lasts longer than the drive from the school parking lot to the Steak ‘N’ Shake, there’s a shuffling, bluesy boogie loping out of the stereo at such an easy pace that you pull your hat down over your eyes and drop your seat back a few inches. You ask what’s playing and it turns out your friend has traced Widespread Panic’s “Travelin’ Light” back to JJ Cale, who apparently also wrote Clapton’s “After Midnight” and “Cocaine” and Skynrd’s “Call Me The Breeze.”
Although Cale has had a quiet following since he released his first record in 1971, recently he’s soundtracking a new generation of road trip stretch-outs, parking lot smoke-outs and dorm room make-outs. “Widespread Panic discovered a couple of my songs and started doin’ ‘em on the gigs,” Cale says. “They’d take a song and expand it and everybody plays a long time and people really like that. But I made my living as a songwriter so I try to get to singin’ and get it over with.”
While Cale can make a guitar blister like the lead players in the jam bands, it’s not his style to attract any more attention than he has to to make his statement. “These Blues,” for example, is a new song off his fourteenth album, To Tulsa And Back, and it’s about life spent under the fluorescent, smoking-blues blue of the drinking house lights. But Cale’s not sitting at the bar—he’s the wry, understated singer setting the lonesome atmosphere and spilling the drinkers’ guts for them so they can keep to themselves: Life it seems is like a dream until you have to talk.
Songs like those by Cale are very easy to relate to but very difficult to write, and there have been plenty of musicians willing to buy a little of what he seems to exude naturally. “If you put records out and musicians hear ‘em and kind of discover the songs on their own,” Cale says in his tumbleweeding, Cali-by-way-of-Oklahoma scratch, “you don’t really have to move to Nashville and hustle your songs.” You could also end up with some chunky royalty checks or even reluctantly standing on the fringe of the spotlight yourself.