In July of 2013, the world lost of one of the most important, severely underrated, and incredibly influential musical figures of the twentieth century: JJ Cale. Despite never reaching critical success on his own, Cale was the driving force behind the most prominent blues and rock songwriters and guitarists of the era. Moreover, JJ Cale provided the music world with a legacy to remember. ‘An Appreciation of JJ Cale’ is an inspired and fitting tribute album to the music pioneer.
Neil Young would fondly recall Cale’s guitar chops, stating that his ‘touch was unspeakable,’ and that he was stunned by his ability. In the 1970’s, Eric Clapton would find solace in the laid back grooves that Cale was recording entirely by himself, and would glamorize and immortalize some of Cale’s strongest penned songs, including ‘Cocaine’ and ‘After Midnight.’ Just a year after Cale’s passing, Clapton has teamed up with all-star roster of musical legends, both young and old, to light the tributary candle and wish farewell to an innovator lost too soon.
Approaching a tribute to someone like Cale is difficult, except to say that JJ Cale provided the world with music and a legacy to remember. As Clapton remarks in the promotional video for ‘An Appreciation of JJ Cale,’ “you’ll never sound like JJ.” Cale’s ‘Tulsa Sound’ originated in Oklahoma, consisting of deep blues, jazz, country, and rock roots, all held loosely together with his notoriously half-baked recording techniques and his distaste for any media recognition. Cale was the kind of artist that would walk out on ‘American Bandstand’ because they would not let him play his song the way he wanted to play it. In fact, he did. Clapton and his associates do their best to capture this mentality in their own grooves, and for the most part, they do a solid job.
The album makes an important artistic decision to not take creative license of the tracks. Rather, each artist does their best to maintain themselves within the realm of Cale’s original compositions, paying their respects through imitation and not by recording their own takes of the songs. Normally, this route may make a tribute sound too eerily similar to the original material. However, that is not the case with ‘The Breeze,’ and each artist’s renditions are special in their own right.
It is also worth noting that Clapton could have taken full control of this record, and it probably would have still been exceptional. In an act of respect, though, Clapton only contributes a few solo cuts. He electrifies and enhances Cale’s classic, ‘The Breeze,’ and he croons ‘Crying Eyes’ and ‘Since You Said Goodbye’ like nobody’s business. Then, he hands the reins over to some very capable counterparts.
The album samples Tom Petty’s voice on ‘Rock And Roll Records’ to make him sound gruffer, and more Cale-esque. This works well, and Petty’s contributions are sharp and well executed. Guitar legend Mark Knopfler provides some complimentary tracks as well, and the new kid on the block, John Mayer, is surprisingly at home with Cale’s sound in an bizarrely positive way. Clapton also invited Cale’s long time collaborator, Don White to pay homage as well. White’s inclusion seems odd at first, given his relatively low standing among these legends, but resolves itself quickly through the sincerity he’s able to convey in his moments on the album. He clearly understood Cale very well.
With a concrete album like ‘The Breeze,’ there are only a few decisions that can be made to enhance it. One of those is adding Willie Nelson in any capacity. Fortunately, ‘The Breeze’ makes that decision with flare, giving Nelson ‘Songbird,’ an unreleased Cale-penned song that is the undeniable highlight of the record. At eighty-one, Nelson still sounds exactly the same as he did forty years ago, stuck in time like some bandit-cowboy fairy tale character. He and Trigger, his trusty, and only guitar, lend themselves to Cale’s legacy with great respect and reverence.
At the lowest points, ‘An Appreciation of JJ Cale’ is a world-class tribute record, worthy of a Grammy nomination in 2015. At the highest points, the album is a beautiful introduction to the music of JJ Cale. One could easily enter this record blind to Cale’s catalog entirely, and leave thirsting for a new exploration of it. Eric Clapton has provided a constantly charming and ever graceful tribute to the memory of JJ Cale. Music lovers of the blues, rock and roll, country, folk, or jazz will revel in this memorable and soon-to-be cherished album. In fact, this album is worth any music fan’s time regardless of what type of music they love, because chances are, whatever artists a fan is listening to were somehow influenced by Cale, somewhere along the enduring and everlasting chain of musical influence and inspiration. Without a doubt, ‘An Appreciation of JJ Cale’ is proof-positive that JJ Cale provided the world with music and a legacy to remember.
Review By Brett Stewart