If there’s any justice in the world, or if J.J. Cale at least signed a decent contract, he’s able to relax on his front porch, strumming his guitar without a care in the world. Even though he rarely gets played on the radio himself, several of his songs help form the bedrock of classic rock radio. Lynyrd Skynyrd covered “Call Me the Breeze”, while Eric Clapton scored big with “After Midnight” and “Cocaine”. He’s not quite a songwriter’s songwriter — his loping style (which has definitely influenced bands from Dire Straits to Little Feat) has too much personality for that label — but he’s probably someone who more people have heard of than have actually heard.
The Millenium Collection offers up a pretty good introduction to Cale. Other collections — like The Very Best of J.J. Cale and Anyway the Wind Blows: The J.J. Cale Anthology — are more comprehensive, but 20th Century Masters provides a good budget-friendly starting point. Unlike treatments of other longstanding artists in the 20th Century Masters series, the J.J. Cale disc benefits from the fact that none of Cale’s prime material is on other labels, so Universal is virtually unrestricted in their song selection.
Fittingly, “Call Me the Breeze” kicks things off. Uptempo, it still epitomizes Cale’s relaxed vibe. Sure, it lacks the familiar guitar grind of Skynyrd’s take, but Cale’s version loses nothing in its simplicity. “Crazy Mama” shows off some funky guitar work (and despite the success of some his better known songs, was Cale’s highest charting single at #22), and “Magnolia” is all late-night tenderness. “After Midnight” shows that even without the driving tempo that Clapton gave the song, the feel still comes across, centering around a simple piano pattern that has the feel of strolling down the streets at night. All four songs hail from Cale’s first — and arguably finest — record, 1971’s Naturally. Recorded on the heels of Clapton’s success with “After Midnight”, the album went a long way towards establishing Cale’s personality, especially when market trends and expectations probably demanded a more complicated sound.
By Cale’s standards, “Lies” (from 1972’s Really) comes across as slick ’70s rock, especially since Cale was exploring the popular Muscle Shoals R&B sound of the time. Bouncy organ that’s a third cousin of Supertramp, female backing vocals, horns — all combine to create a cut that feels a little cluttered, but Cale provides a soft center of murmured vocals and sharp guitar to keep things in line. “Cajun Moon” (from 1974’s Okie) returns to the fold a bit, briskly evoking warm, swampy nights. “Travelin’ Light” rides a rhythm that doesn’t feel far off from the Doobie Brothers, and its surprising use of vibraphone separates it a little from Cale’s other work (much of the Troubadour album, which “Travelin’ Light” comes from, featured relatively odd instrumentation, but not enough to make the record seem like an aberration in the Cale catalog).
At this point, “Cocaine” startles for two reasons: one, because Clapton’s rendition of it was pretty darn faithful, and two, compared to Cale’s other work, the song practically screams as a solid riff and squealing lead guitar belie the song’s seemingly laid-back vibe. “I’ll Make Love to You Anytime” eases back a bit, and you have to wonder if Mark Knopfler played this before going to bed each night while he was refining his style. “Sensitive Kind” makes surprisingly full use of strings, and “Carry On” finishes things on an upbeat, shuffling note.
All in all, 20th Century Masters covers Cale’s career in chronological fashion, from 1971 to 1981. Part of this is due to the fact that much of Cale’s work in the ’90s has been for other labels. It also has to do with the fact that much of Cale’s career-defining work appeared during this period. By no means is Cale over-the-hill, though. Last year’s excellent J.J. Cale live found Cale keeping his style intact while injecting surprising life and variety into some of his old chestnuts. While he certainly has received the most attention for what others have done to his songs, Cale’s own work proves that he well deserves any accolades he gets.