In the next few days, you’re going to see a deluge of obituaries for J.J. Cale. They will say the following: John Weldon Cale was from Oklahoma City (he changed his first name to avoid confusion with the guy in The Velvet Underground), his songs were recorded by everyone from Lynyrd Skynyrd to Tom Petty to Waylon Jennings and back again, he won a Grammy with Eric Clapton in 2008, he recorded a string of solo albums from 1972 to 2009, and died of a heart attack on July 26, 2013 at the age of 74. The obituaries will be factually correct, well-meaning, full of cold numbers, and completely nondescript. With few exceptions, the corporate succubus will whitewash, airbrush, spitshine, and suck out every drop of humanity. Just the facts, ma’am. Insert dead musician here. NEXT.
But folks, we’re talking about J.J. Cale. He deserves better, because he’s what America sounds like.
He sounds like a farm hand shuffling his way to the microphone and humbly splitting the atom. A mere sleight of hand from Cale could knock people sideways and winding. That’s how powerful he was. Scratch that. That’s how powerful he IS.
The recorded output of J.J. Cale is a Mount Rushmore-sized history lesson in American music. It’s blues, rockabilly, jazz, rock ‘n’ roll, gospel, folk, country, and drum machines all bundled up in a beautiful, effortless knot. It’s like God took all of America’s considerable musical offerings and stored them inside one unassuming little gray-haired man riding into town on a donkey.
Despite his monumental gifts, Cale’s records are overstocked warehouses of humility and understatement. There’s no glamour, glitz, or look what I can do with my guitar weedely weedely woo. Not one note of his entire oeuvre screams, “LOOK AT ME!! I’M A SONGWRITING AND GUITAR VIRTUOSO!!” His songs are skeletal, like he’s daring you to flesh them out on your own. Go ahead and stretch your skin over the song, he says. If it’s sturdy enough, it’ll take the pressure.
The songs aren’t ME ME ME, they’re YOU YOU YOU. That’s why so many other artists covered him–they could see themselves in the songs. That’s why you see yourself in his music. Cale did that on purpose. His songs burst at the seams with what you can do.
There will be no more J.J. Cale records. The man has gone to whatever lies beyond. The music, however, is alive and well. For a musician, that means you live forever. A thousand + years from now, a kid in his or her brand new 3D-printed hazmat suit (complete with Intergalactic GPS, Wi-Fi neck implant, and dual oxygen tanks) will discover Cale’s Naturally and it will knock them backwards. Because the good stuff NEVER goes away. Not when the body dies, not as the years pass, not when the times change. Never.
The best obituary for J.J. Cale is to play one of his records. My personal favorite is 1994’s Closer To You. Today I will play it loudly and I will smile.
Because that’s the point, isn’t it?
Eric Clapton in awe of J. J. Cale:
J.J. Cale & Leon Russell:
Michael Franklin is the Media & Reserves Specialist at Western Kentucky University’s Visual & Performing Arts Library (VPAL). Michael is also a professional musician and sound engineer. He is currently recording his 6th CD with his best friends Screenlast 6.0 and Audacity Sourceforge. He thinks Iggy Pop is the greatest singer in the history of music. If you disagree, you’re wrong. You better ask somebody.
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