Basic Instincts

J.J. Cale remains -- in many ways -- a master of understatement

Getting too close to one’s musical heroes can be hazardous. The importance of his music in your own lore is of no significance to the artist, and there is a distinct possibility that you won’t find any common ground. You might even develop an aversion to his personality. (One meeting with a longtime guitar-playing hero of mine was so overwhelmed by the artist’s self absorption and disregard for my humanity that I can no longer listen to his music with any enthusiasm.) Still, we are drawn to those musicians whose art has colored our lives.

J.J. Cale holds an especially significant place in my musical biography. His first album, Naturally, released in 1971, bridged the gap between the hard rock of the British blues boom--particularly the music of Eric Clapton and Cream--and the rootsy West Coast sound of the ‘70s and opened the door to American folk and country music. Cale’s career has not produced any radical departures from the template established on that first album, but has set a standard for consistency, musicianship and production values that has few peers in the genre that some call Americana.

There is something pure and organic about Naturally; it is a homemade record. Cale plays many of the instruments himself, eschewing drums for a machine on several of the tracks, but there is no artifice about it. The cover, a painting (once gifted to Cale) of a raccoon, is a distinctive metaphor for the man, a creature of the night, shy and reclusive. The music on the record does exactly what it says on the tin, and it resonates down the decades--whether in the sound of Mark Knopfler’s guitar or in one of the myriad covers of Cale’s songs. Yet, few have been able to replicate that mysterious quality--that effortless precision--so often identified as “laid-back.”

The full article text and exclusive photographs are available in the print edition of The Fretboard Journal.