Sunday, July 28, 2013
In Memory of JJ Cale - The Yang to Hard Rock's Yin
The other day we lost an American treasure. Tulsa native JJ Cale was a one of the pioneers of the genre that we now classify as Singer/Songwriter. He wrote such classics as “They Call Me The Breeze”, “Cocaine”, and “After Midnight”. He was 74.
Normally I’m writing about bands and musicians that push their amps to ridiculous volumes and levels of distortion. I usually write about this style with tongue-in-cheek humor, but I have a good reason. Lurking out there, waiting to be discovered by the younger generation of record collectors and musicians are JJ Cale’s records. A master of subtlety and understatement, JJ’s sound is the Yang to Hard Rock’s Yin. For as much as stoner rock writers and musicians talk about zoning out or tuning in or getting set into a meditative trance by modern psychedelic hard and heavy rock bands, save for Brant Bjork, I have still to hear someone yet to get close to settling into the deep, laid back groove that is JJ’s trademark sound. For those of you who don’t know, JJ Cale’s name is usually directly followed by the words “laid back”. That’s a hell of a compliment if you ask me.
For me, discovering JJ’s music was a breath of fresh air. I had been deep in the rut of drugged out psychedelic jams...stoner rock, if you will. But I’m lucky. I have a friend who has mentored me through several of my big musical phases and he has a knack of playing the right record at the right time. Once it was Wilco’s Sky Blue Sky. I didn’t think that I could find a better record for chilling out than Dark Side of the Moon before then. So naturally, I was looking for the next record to settle my blues with musical contentment. After Red Headed Stranger, I was really lost on where to go next. The answer was under my nose. This is how it usually goes for me. A big part of developing as an artist is letting go of that pesky little ego that easily develops as your chops and knowledge of your medium do as well. You see, I knew about him. I had read about him. I am ashamed to admit I already had my two favorite JJ Cale records on my Ipod. I just ignored him. It was the drum machine in “They Call Me The Breeze”. I was a snob. I was a jerk. I was an idiot. It was a hard lesson in rock and roll. Check your ego at the door. But, I had heard Clapton’s takes on “After Midnight” and “Cocaine”. “They Call Me The Breeze” was far and away from my favorite Skynyrd tracks. I honestly thought they sucked. I was right. When you hear JJ’s recordings, drum machine and all, it is like reading a favorite book again, new for the first time...and they aren’t even the best songs on the records. Those dudes didn’t even really get close. No ever will.
Often imitated and never duplicated. A true original. These are words often reserved for Willie Nelson. It was fitting that I was studying both men’s career at the same time. There are some definite parallels, but with two different outcomes. Both men were from the same part of the country. Both men had a hard time finding their groove with a career as a solo musician while writing songs that were turned into massive hits by more famous acts. Both men have an instantly recognizable, mellow sound. Willy broke through and turned into a mega superstar. JJ humbly continued making music somewhat in the shadow of obscurity. Eventually, after Eric Clapton finally made the point of showcasing JJ by splitting a record with him did the media really pay attention to him. He was in his 60s. Like Willie, JJ’s music is a classic blend of what is now called Americana. His particular way of stirring that melting pot of styles leaves listeners with a sense of serene calmness that is a result of experimental dynamics that few musicians or producers venture towards. Personally, I find that with his prolific songwriting skills, crystal clearly executed tones, and understanding of how a recording studio works in conjunction with the music puts him among the better known greats Les Paul and Chet Atkins. Those are big shoes to fill, but hopefully with the attention that his death will garner from those who worked with him or covered his songs, the rest of the musical community will come to understand my sentiment as well. For those skeptics reading this, I will leave you with his 1976 recording of “Cherry” and you should easily understand where I’m coming from. Try not to get carried away to far.