by Nick DeRiso

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 back then, all the more notable: "Who knew?" he admits during a chugging scat-influenced opener of this 2009 Rounder release. "Not me, you or anyone else."

A singer, songwriter, Eric Clapton-muse, multi-instrumentalist, producer and record engineer, Cale is 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 later 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.

Originally published at

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Tags: eric clapton, j.j. cale, record reviews,

Comment by Jack on November 28, 2010 at 5:20pm
Fine write up, many thanks. JJ's last two record's, Roll On and To Tulsa and Back are very strong records; exceptional songwriting and playing. Taken separately or together, they are great examples of late career excellence from a guy whose sound has always been quintessential Americana (not my favorite term but what the hell, it gets the point across). Two of the songs on ToTulsa and Back - Chains of Love and New Lover - should have been radio hits and are as good as anything JJ has written in his career. And for those looking for protest songs, The Problem on To Tulsa and Back is a nice dig.

That record with Cale and Clapton is probbaly the best thing Clapton has done in eons. The last tune, Ride the River is a great tune; simple,evocative lyrics, great guitars,nicely arranged. Clapton would have been far better served working more frequently with JJ Cale producing than he was by hooking upwith Phil Collins and others.

Listen to JJ Cale's guitar and you know who Mark Knopfler was listening to years ago.


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Created by No Depression Feb 17, 2009 at 9:06pm. Last updated by No Depression Sep 24, 2012.