J.J. Cale – Roll On (2009)

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The question for rock musicians has always been how they might navigate into middle age, and later. No previous format — from country pickers to down home blues men to doomed jazzmen — was so inextricably tied into youth. That makes the lasting relevance of J.J. Cale, 70 now, all the more notable: “Who knew?” he admits during a chugging scat-influenced opener of a new Rounder release. “Not me, you or anyone else.”

The singer, songwriter, Eric Clapton-muse, multi-instrumentalist, producer and record engineer released “Roll On” on Feb. 24, 2009. It’s an inspiration not just for the middle-aged now struggling, as Cale sings, to “navigate your personal fate,” but also those too young to fully grasp his shadowy presence behind and around so much important music.

J.J. Cale is still making those kind of songs. Even if he never quite became famous.

“I wanted to be able to play music, and then when I went out in my private life, my personal life,” Cale was saying the other day. “I didn’t want to be famous.” But he should be. “Roll On,” which has more than its share of magic, cool rebellion and muscular soul, is Cale’s first solo album in five years — a rare moment in the spotlight for this well-known (or not) recluse. See, he prefers to play the Svengali role, working behind the scenes. It had been, after all, eight years between his previous records. Unless your checking liner notes, you might not even recognize the name.

That’s why “Where the Sun Don’t Shine,” perhaps the most overtly reminiscent of Clapton’s 1970s sound — that is to say, when he was reinterpreting both Cale’s “Cocaine” and “After Midnight” — feels both of and not of Cale.

Cale, the insider’s outsider, has said that royalties from those two songs, along with Lynyrd Skynyrd’s version of “Call Me the Breeze,” still account for 80 percent of his income. Still, he walks down the streets of his hometown largely unrecognized. Slowhand, who subsequently reunited with Cale for a Grammy-winning, gold-certified 2006 collaboration, “The Road to Escondido,” appears later on the title cut. But the truth is, that’s a rare moment of interaction.

Cale wrote, produced and played nearly all of the instruments across these 12 standout tracks — including guitars, pedal steel, bass, drums, piano and synthesizers — while laying tracks at his home studio. The overall sound mirrors that laid back, interior style.

Cale’s “Cherry Street” infectiously lopes along as if sung in the back of a swaying rail car. “Leaving in the Morning,” a gem in the style of Bob Dylan’s country period, opens up like back road. “Oh Mary” shakes and rattles with a juke-y joy.

Laconic and mysterious, even in his prime (1971’s “Naturally” was a well-spring hybrid of easy-going blues, folk and jazz), Cale remains a wonder of restrained brilliance.

Not that the seams don’t sometimes show: He finds no small amount of reflection during the closer, “Bring Down the Curtain,” where Cale plaintively repeats “enough is enough.” Yet there is a homey familiarity about “Roll On,” and we find hope within that.

Cale, in a world so different from when this music was born, still clings to a constancy in rhymes and grooves, in riffs and words.

“Roll On” shows the old man can still rock.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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