By Pat McGuire; Illustration by Gary Cieradkowski on January 9, 2012
The spotlight has much allure and even more reach. And while it may stand as a cautionary ideal, these days the street proverb of “Give me the fortune, keep the fame” seems more and more unreachable, if not downright absurd. We live in a time where “Reality TV” reigns supreme, where talent-less nobodies can fill the airwaves with their incessant need for attention—we even worship a TV show called Big Brother. Somewhere out there, George Orwell is smacking his dusty forehead and changing the channel.
Yet now, in 2009, and for the last 40 years, we bear witness to the strange case of Mr. JJ Cale, the humble Oklahoman songwriter behind such legendary tunes as “After Midnight,” “Call Me the Breeze” and “Cocaine.” Although Eric Clapton, Lynryd Skynyrd and countless others have covered his work, the 70-year-old Cale remains remarkably unknown. He doesn’t pose for pictures and he doesn’t do much press, but through a strict routine of churning out his pleasures while simply avoiding the “whole showbiz thing of it,” he has become an iconographic example of how to keep the figurative “fortune” and leave the rest behind.
Cale began his career as a sound engineer in the ’60s, repairing analog equipment and working on drum machines, but only when he was alone with a guitar, writing a song, did he feel at ease. Though he earned his fortune by penning songs made famous by bigger names, he’s also found time to release 16 records of his own—including 2009’s Roll On—and still tours the States to promote them, but has never embraced the concept of “playing to the cameras.” Cale has staked out a modest home in the San Diego suburb of Escondido and leads a simple existence taking care of his few acres as a way to distract him from his guitars, and playing his guitars as a way to distract him from his acres, never giving so much as a nod to the allure of the spotlight or the call of the airwaves.
Across the nation on the shores of Charleston, Ben Bridwell is a songwriter who, despite wishing he could spend more of his days tending to his turf in his home state of South Carolina, is busy being the leader of one of the world’s most beloved new bands. Hard at work on Band of Horses’ third full-length album, Bridwell found time to dial up Cale, one of his heroes, to talk shop and get to the bottom of his favorite Cale tune, “Thirteen Days,” which Bridwell’s band often covers during its live shows. Amid comparisons between the pair’s riding lawn mowers and an agreed-upon annoyance with the “same old” interview questions, Bridwell finds that the Cale song holds complete truth: It’s an apt premise in multiple ways.
The conversation begins as smoothly as a Cale chord change and rolls on through common ground discussions of lyric conjuring, life on the road and the pure and simple pleasures of songwriting, finally yielding a surprise for Bridwell, who discovers that another one of his favorite Cale songs isn’t so similarly adored by its author.
A conversation with JJ Cale and Ben Bridwell
Ben Bridwell: Mr. Cale, I saw that you just got done with a West Coast tour of 13 dates. I first came to know about you through your song “Thirteen Days,” so that seemed fitting.
JJ Cale: It was originally 13 days, ending up in Vancouver, but I don’t like to fly so I had to find a way to get back to Southern California. So, we added three more and it became 16 days.
Bridwell: I’ve been listening to your new record so much and I absolutely love it. On “Fonda-lina,” are you bringing back the drum machine?
Cale: Yeah, about half of it is drum machines. With the early records I made, I didn’t have any money. We went to Nashville and couldn’t afford to hire a bass player or drummer so I made the original demos with electric drum machines. As the years passed, I got to where I could afford to hire real musicians but from time to time I kept using the drum machines. Ironically, they’ve gotten real popular, especially with rap and a lot of popular music. I was not the first guy to use one but I was real close. People didn’t know it was a drum machine at the time, they just thought it was a bad murmur.
Bridwell: Do you still hold onto the original drum machines or any of the old stuff? In tons of sessions back then, people would smoke in studios, which you don’t do anymore due to the wear and tear on equipment—did any of that stuff get smoke damage?
Cale: I’ve got the original drum machine that was on “Call Me the Breeze” from the first album, but I never was much for taking care of the equipment. I just always kept an eye on my guitars. I was making my living as an engineer for a long time; I spent most of my time keeping that old analog stuff working. When you get that new stuff, the old stuff doesn’t really sound as good. And if it don’t work, you just throw it away and get another one. In the old days, I spent half my time tweaking those old machines and boards before I even got out my guitar to write a song.
Bridwell: There seems to be a lot of interviews with you that focus on gear and guitars and your singing style but there’s very few that ever talk about your lyric-writing process.
Cale: That’s the hardest part. If you’re a guitar player, you just play the guitar; if you’re a recording engineer, you just record. Writing the song, it’s kind of easy to come up with new chord changes. But writing the lyrics, you know…then things start getting personal. That’s the hardest part; you’re starting with a blank page.
Bridwell: Do you edit yourself up until the last point of a record?
Cale: Oh yeah. I’m always like, “Well, that line sucks,” and I take it out and put something else in. Now that I listen to some of my old records, I should’ve done that a little bit more.
Bridwell: Well, I don’t know, it worked out quite well for you. I saw this quote of yours about engineering your own records: “We kind of grow the flour to make the cake,” which I thought was a really cool way to put it.
Cale: Well, I don’t remember saying that—I’ve done a few interviews, you see—but I guess I did say that.
Bridwell: Yeah, you were kind of reluctant to do a lot of interviews back in the day.
Cale: Still am [Both laugh].
FILTER: Mr. Cale, it’s ironic that you’re sort of famous for not being famous, as these days it’s nearly impossible to have the fortune and forgo the fame. But as you’ve worked hard to avoid the spotlight, do you think that in this day and age of constant celebrity surveillance it’s possible to do what you’ve done, in that sense?
Cale: Well, you gotta remember I’m not a performer. I mean, I’m a musician and I do all the things everybody else does, but what I basically make my living doing is country songwriting. What you’re talking about applies to all those things—being a performer, making records, tours and interviews, the whole showbiz thing of it. Songwriting is a whole ’nother thing. If you want to draw a crowd or sell records, you gotta do the hype routine. But if you’re a songwriter and you’re lucky enough to have other people record your songs, you can stay anonymous and still pay your rent. I’ve done that and I don’t need to be famous. Songwriting’s the only profession in show business that you can do that.
FILTER: It seems to exist more in your genre of music than in any other, especially with Nashville and the Tin Pan Alley and Brill Building guys who would write songs for performers.
Cale: Right. Now, all the stuff I’ve written is out on my albums but they didn’t sell anywhere near as much as when other people recorded my songs. I go out and tour and my records sell a little bit, so I guess I’m semi-famous if you wanna say that. If you’re just a songwriter you can stay anonymous but it’s real hard to do, ’cause if you have success from somebody else performing your songs then everybody wants to know who you are. But a lot of people assume that whoever the singer is actually wrote it.
FILTER: When you’re in the process of writing a song, do you ever think that somebody else could do it better than you?
Cale: I don’t. Most of my songs I just wrote because I was bored; I really wasn’t doing it with the intention of making a record. I love to play the guitar but my singing ability is pretty slim. Everybody who’s ever recorded my songs, including Ben’s group and then going back on through the years—Eric Clapton or whoever—it was always a surprise to me when I’d hear it on the radio. I never had the intention of writing songs like the Tin Pan Alley guys did, where they’d say, “Get in the office and write a song for Dean Martin.” I mainly wrote songs to entertain myself, and when I got through I was really lucky when somebody said, “We’ll put that out.” But I never thought, “I’ll write this song and maybe Ray Charles will cut it.”
Bridwell: I want to ask you about “Thirteen Days.” When I first heard that song, I felt it spoke so truly of the experience of being in a band on the road—“smoking cigarettes and reefer, drinking coffee and booze,” “sometimes we make money, sometimes I don’t know.” You really make the experience your own sometimes when you listen to a song. How much of that tale was actually true?
Cale: It’s true. The bus breaking down… A lot of the songs I write are fantasy, some of them are reality, some of them are something I’d observed somebody else do. I seemed to get the whole touring thing into that one particular song. There are songs that I made up, but that’s not one of them.
Bridwell: I think that song will hold up true until the end of time.
Cale: Musicians that go out and play can relate to it, like you guys, Ben. A lot of the songs I’ve written I don’t do when I play a gig. But that particular song, whoever’s playing drums with me will say, “Let’s do ‘Thirteen Days.’” It’s a ¾ waltz time with a jazz beat and the drummers all like to play it because they can groove with it.
Bridwell: Do you have a favorite record you’ve done or something that you’re really proud of?
Cale: It varies. Some days, music fits whatever it is you’re doing or fits the people you’re around, and other times that same song don’t fit that day or even the year. Your favorite songs constantly change.
FILTER: Someone told me once that if you write good songs, you only remember the ones you don’t like.
Cale: [Laughs] You got that right. I wrote a song called “Magnolia” on the first album and people just loved that thing and I never did like it. It’s a slow, draggy-ass ballad. But I never played a gig that I didn’t do it because people would get real mad if I don’t. But it was probably one of my least favorite songs.
Bridwell: Wow. Well, when you have so many that were so successful, including that song, I guess you can’t really look a gift horse in the mouth. You’ve got to be thankful for that song that’s been good to you.
Cale: I am very, very thankful, and when you play gigs and people come in and listen to you, you don’t wanna piss ’em off, so you try to do the songs they like. But the people who come to all the gigs only want to hear the obscure tunes, and my problem is I’ve reached an age where I can’t remember all the damn lyrics anymore. I’m gonna have to do like Obama does and get me a teleprompter.
Bridwell: I can speak from experience in saying that to cover a JJ Cale tune is a lesson in failure because you can never have your suave mellowness—it will always overplay as soon as you start.
Cale: I disagree with that. Most renditions of my songs, including you guys’—I saw Band of Horses’ demo [of “Thirteen Days”] on YouTube and I like your version much better than mine. You gotta remember: Because I’m a songwriter, I’m starting from zero. I don’t have any designs, so my recordings are pretty crude for the simple reason that I’m just testing out what it is I’m doing. I don’t write a song, make a record of it, analyze what I don’t like about it and then go make the real version. I just put out the damn demos.
Bridwell: You’ve been incredibly fortunate to be able to take that approach. I think most everybody else in the industry has had to work at it, to polish these things and go out and tour for years on a record. You’ve beat the system, my friend.
Cale: Well, I don’t know about that. I think it’s just because I’m lazy [Both laugh].