16th December 2021:
After completing a rather busy work schedule on Sunday evening I was feeling like some music to ease me into the evening that was familiar, but not overplayed. Something that felt like a warm hug without smothering my mood. I decided to re-visit the JJ Cale album that was released in 2019, six years after his death. I featured one of the tracks early last year, but after taking another listen I think its time for a deeper look.
Unlike many posthumous albums, Stay Around isn’t a compilation of favourites. The playlist comprises 15 previously unreleased tracks. You might think a collection from the archive might sound a little unfinished, but I was surprised how well produced the songs are. Admittedly, there are a few excellent obvious singles, but many of the remaining songs are stripped back, simpler, and no less magical.
The collection was compiled from JJ Cale’s vast library of outtakes and unreleased songs by his wife (and former band member), Christine Lakeland and his close friend and manager of many years, Mike Kaupps. I had no idea just how prolific JJ Cale had been through the 5 decades of his career before doing some fascinating research.
I became a big fan from the mid-70s when his 3rd and 4th albums, Oakie and Troubadour were heard playing in every coffee bar and restaurant in Port Elizabeth. After you read a little of this legendary musician’s life you’ll understand just how busy he remained throughout his life.
Restrained is a quality often given to JJ Cale’s music by those he influenced. Neil Young wrote in his autobiography “JJ’s guitar playing is a huge influence on me. His touch is unspeakable. I am stunned by it.” In a New York Times interview, Beck referred to his playing as “effortlessness…restraint and underplaying while being very powerful”. Clapton was a close friend and stats in his autobiography that “JJ Cale as one of the most important artists in the history of rock and quietly representing the greatest asset his country has ever had.”
I’m starting with the title song, Stay Around. The guitar intro leads you into a JJ Cale’s signature double-tracked vocals through a gentle love song with some perfectly restrained (there’s that word again) steel guitar. It’s one of his songs that you almost feel you know. Enjoy.
JJ Cale preferred life away from the mainstream, preferring the role of songwriter rather than a performer. In fact, although he had released a demo of After Midnight in 1966, it was only after Clapton had a huge hit with it that Cale was convinced to cut his own album. But I’m getting ahead of myself – let’s start earlier.
JJ Cale regarded himself as a songwriter and this steered his work ethic. His albums were new conceptual or themed, they were centred on the craftsmanship of each track. This was normal for a man who saw his bread and butter as writing for others. Clapton, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Brian Ferry, Waylon Jennings are just a few of the many artists who recorded his songs. This worked perfectly for JJ and freed him from the spotlight.
Honesty to his craft was a guiding principle in his career. When his early hit Crazy Mama was enjoying the biggest success he had yet had, he refused to play on the popular ‘Dick Clark’s American Bandstand’ because his band could not come and he would have to lip-sync. He saw no value in investing time and effort into something that may have benefitted his fame, but not his craft.
He was not concerned with fame, although it was inevitable, and stayed focused on writing music. His numerous writing and recording sessions resulted in stacks of unused, but normally completed songs. The fact that they were sitting, unreleased on a shelf, didn’t worry him. He knew that they would find the right place on someone’s album, maybe even one of his own. For example, the song Roll On had been on the shelf for 34 years before being used as the title track and name for his 2009 Roll On album.
Eric Clapton was a huge fan of JJ and had huge hits with After Midnight and Cocaine among other Cale originals. They stayed close friends both musically and personally, and this bond of mutual admiration culminated in the Road to Escondido collaboration in 2006. This was JJ Cale’s well-deserved and overdue first Grammy win for Best Contemporary Blues Album.
My second choice from Stay Around is another that had me wrapped up in his guitar style and harmony. I’m not sure when he wrote this but I can hear some influence that could have come from, or been imparted to, They Call Me the Breeze – but it may just be me! Take a listen to Winter Snow and tell me what you think.
Christine Lakeland explained how she compiled the Stay Around collection; “I wanted to find material that was completely unheard to max-out the ‘Cale factor’… using as much that came from John’s ears and fingers and his choices as I could, so I stuck to John’s mixes. You can make things so sterile that you take the human feel out. But John left a lot of that human feel in. He left so much room for interpretation.”
Mike Kaupps commented that JJ would: “…burn me CDs of demos, and one time I said, ‘You’ve got two good albums on here.’ Some of the tracks had detailed information, some of them had nothing. Some songs might be a full band of his buddies, others were him playing everything. These were songs he really did intend to do something with because they were carried to his typical level of production for release.”
Cale wasn’t a fan of a too finely polished sounding final result and liked to ‘muddy things up’. This resulted in his signature vintage sound that gives his songs an element that many commercially produced songs don’t manage to maintain, personality. His playing is sublime, but it is the well-known, slightly gruff voice that lends the magic ingredient. He manages to capture and maintain a mood or nuance that many lose in over-production.
Who knows if we’ll see any more releases of archived material from the master, but one thing is guaranteed, his music will carry on influencing new generations of musicians well into the future.
The closing track is another song that feels like an old friend that you’ve never met before. This could have come from any of JJ Cale’s albums from any point in his career and I can’t believe it didn’t. Here’s the track I featured last year that has to have another turn in my ramblings – Go Downtown.
The Loving the Music mini-features are written and compiled by me to support Loving the Music’s Facebook page and group. Join the community for regular themed three-part posts that do do more than just share a song.
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Words © Andrew Knapp 2021