J.J. Cale is enjoying his lunch in a corner booth at Olive Garden, cloaked in the anonymity he's taken pains to cultivate throughout his long career in music. But now it looks as if his cover has been blown.
A middle-aged woman approaches and introduces herself. He stiffens for an instant, then relaxes. "Oh, I've been talking too loud again," he says with a smile.
"Not really," she says. "My husband and I are big fans of Eric Clapton, and I think you co-wrote an album with him . . . . Could I please ask for your autograph?"
"I guess," Cale replies. "I can't sign Eric's name," he adds with a wink as he puts his neat signature on her business card.
These are the moments Cale has worked to avoid, but when it's over he has to laugh at the timing -- he'd just been recalling the week that his old pal Clapton spent in this northern San Diego County town to work on their 2006 duo album, "The Road to Escondido."
"Every restaurant him and I went to, we couldn't eat for all these people," says Cale, his Oklahoma twang still pronounced after decades in Southern California. "He's used to it, but I didn't really want that. I wanted to be able to play music, and then when I went out in my private life, my personal life, I didn't want to be famous.
"If you notice, nobody's coming over here in this restaurant and do what they do to Eric Clapton. So I pulled that off."
With an exception here and there, obviously. Still, Cale has stuck to his guns. He does few interviews, and most of those are by phone. He rarely performs live, and he didn't put his picture on his albums for the first 15 years of his career.
Cale considers himself semi-retired and expects every record to be his last. That includes his 16th album, "Roll On," out today on Rounder Records. Like most of them, it was prompted more by the urging of business associates than by any ambition on Cale's part.
Turning 70 in December has reinforced his reluctance to tour, but against all odds he's planning to play some West Coast dates in March, his first performances in almost five years. The Southern California shows are March 27-28 at McCabe's, March 29 at the Belly Up in Solana Beach and March 30 at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano.
"When I sit down and play the guitar, I'm 20 years old again," he says. "I have as much enthusiasm as I always did. Making the music picks up your day, but doing the business does not, and the trouble with gigs is there's a lot of business with a gig.
"And 70 is really -- you know, my hearing, eyesight, can't hit pitch, arthritis playing the guitar. All the things that whether you're healthy or not come at you as you grow older. Eventually something's gonna get you."
The quiet giant
Even after the Grammy-winning Clapton collaboration elevated his profile, Cale remains one of rock's most doggedly enigmatic figures. From his shadowy lair, he's built a substantial cult audience and exerted a strong influence on other musicians, most notably Clapton and Mark Knopfler.
His albums, starting with "Naturally" in 1971, offer a unique hybrid of blues, folk and jazz, marked by relaxed grooves and Cale's fluid guitar and laconic vocals. His early use of drum machines and his unconventional mixes lend a distinctive and timeless quality to his work and set him apart from the pack of Americana roots-music purists.
"In my humble opinion, he is one of the most important artists in the history of rock, quietly representing the greatest asset his country has ever had," Clapton wrote of Cale in his 2007 autobiography.
"The effortlessness, that restraint and underplaying, under-singing -- it was just very powerful," says Beck, part of a younger generation of musicians who have taken a shine to Cale. "The power of doing less and holding back in a song, I've taken a lot of influence from that."
Cale doesn't seem like the reclusive type as he talks easily and eats his cheese pizza here in central Escondido, down from the nearby hills where he's lived for 20 years. In his jeans, olive-green sweat shirt and cap, he looks like a grizzled hired hand or ranch foreman.
"I don't know anybody here. All my musician friends moved back to Oklahoma; they're all old or dead now. You know, I write songs, I repair guitars . . . I have three acres. I spend most of my time keeping those three acres up and the house from falling down. I love the rabbits and the squirrels and the birds. Living in big cities most of my life, it was nice to have that."
Cale was born in Oklahoma City and grew up in Tulsa, where he started playing honky-tonks in the mid-'50s, protected by chicken wire from flying fists and bottles as he covered R&B; and rock 'n' roll hits. He also picked up skills in the recording studio, and he moved to Los Angeles in the early '60s to engineer for fellow Tulsa transplant Leon Russell and pop producer Snuff Garrett.
At night he played with a trio in bowling alleys and bars from North Hollywood to Norwalk, Downey to East L.A. -- and, memorably, on the Sunset Strip, where he filled in for regular headliner Johnny Rivers at the Whisky a Go-Go.
Clapton might have adopted his musical template from Cale, but the Englishman more than returned the favor. His first solo hit was 1970's "After Midnight," a song Cale had written and recorded as the B-side of a single for Liberty Records four years earlier.
Cale was broke and back in Tulsa when he heard it on the radio. "I knew then that I was gonna make some money," he says. "When I heard it, I went, 'Oh, man, I might stay with the music business.' I was about ready to get out of it. I was playing Friday and Saturday nights and looking for a day job . . . . I knew enough about the business that you get a song on the radio, you're gonna make some money."
Cale's material has been recorded by hundreds of singers since then, but "After Midnight," "Cocaine" (also recorded by Clapton) and "Call Me the Breeze" (Lynyrd Skynyrd) have accounted for 80% of his income, he says. "It's allowed me not to work is what it's allowed me. I pick and choose whatever it is I want to do. Any gigs or new records or writing songs is because I want to, not 'cause I have to, and that makes me really lucky."
Sixteen albums later, the music is still quintessential Cale. He always starts with the idea of doing something different, but it never works out that way. "I always end up manipulating myself into sounding like the last thing I did," he says.
"Roll On" has the shuffles and swing, blues and boogie, but it might stand out because of the thing that gives him the most trouble -- the lyrics.
Cale, who admires the humor and twists of songwriters such as Roger Miller, conveys a sense of reflection and introspection in several of the new songs. In the blues vamp "Former Me," he reaches back in search of a younger self. The folk/country "Old Friend" looks at earlier times, and lines such as "are you singing the same old song again?" could be addressed to himself as easily as to another person.
Given his history, fans are likely to take literally the farewell in the closing "Bring Down the Curtain," where he sings, "Enough is enough, can't do it no more / Bring down the curtain, close the door."
"On this album here particularly there's a bunch of 70-year-old-man kind of tunes that I would have not wrote 20 years ago," he says. "Reflective, that's a good term."
Does he think he's finally revealing himself? He smiles and answers quickly.
"I try not to."
As he steps outside and drinks in the sunshine of his adopted hometown, he recalls his debate with Clapton about using its name in their album title. "I said, 'Eric, I live in this town, it's where I go shopping.' He won that one. So when the album first come out, the mayor called. 'Cause Eric Clapton -- the word went all over. So the city fathers here in this town, 'Well we want to talk to J.J.' They had no idea who J.J. was, but J.J. was with Eric Clapton, and they made this record called 'Escondido.'
"So I kind of had to dodge it for a little while . . . . What was it they wanted? They wanted me to talk to the chamber of commerce. And I said, 'You know, I'm not a chamber of commerce kind of a guy.' "