ESCONDIDO — 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.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, February 26, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 28 words Type of Material: Correction
J.J. Cale: In Tuesday's Calendar section, the credit on a photograph with a profile of musician J.J. Cale was misspelled. The photographer's name is Jane Richey, not Rickey.
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.