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Originally published Friday, April 3, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Night Watch

Night Watch: JJ Cale hits the road

JJ Cale, the 70-year-old rock-blues legend, is touring behind his hit new album "Roll On" and appearing at Seattle's Triple Door Tuesday and Wednesday.

Special to The Seattle Times

On the Internet

JJ Cale: Hear songs from "Roll On" at his Web site, www.jjcale.com.

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For an alleged reclusive legend, JJ Cale is unfailingly courteous. In fact, he's rather ebullient. When I mention the attention brought on by his new album, "Roll On," he's downright apologetic.

"You're right, and I'm sorry about that," he says, speaking with a brisk Oklahoma twang from a cellphone beside his parked tour bus in San Juan Capistrano, Calif. "My profile is a little higher now. I don't know why. That's not really my idea. The people I work with, they say, 'Well, you can't sell records or draw a crowd unless you get your profile up some.' So I kinda went for it. We're trying to keep it down as much as we possibly can, Jonathan."

Out of a zillion interviews, I can count the number of times a musician has addressed me by name on one cynically-fisted hand.

At 70 years old, Cale is a musician of an era that's hard to reconcile with today's download-driven ephemera. He started playing guitar in the early 1950s, "before rock 'n' roll come along," listening via transistor radio to the country troubadours of his native Tulsa. As a young man he listened to the arrival of Elvis and Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Fats Domino.

In his 20s, Cale moved to L.A. to work as a studio engineer by day and play guitar on the nightclub circuit for extra cash. He was 30 when he recorded his first solo album, "Naturally," in 1971. At that point, only a handful of folks knew of his music — a unique electric-acoustic hybrid of folk, jazz, blues and disco that drifts over whispery vocals, underplayed guitar, and drowsy boogie beats. Fortunately, that handful included Eric Clapton, who turned Cale's "After Midnight" and "Cocaine" into massive radio hits; and Lynyrd Skynyrd, who did the same with "Call Me the Breeze."

Since then, Cale's done very little to make his songs popular besides write them. He seldom tours, gives few interviews, and mostly keeps his likeness off his album covers. (Even the cover of "Roll On" obscures all but an eye, a nose, and a bushy gray eyebrow behind a hollow-body electric guitar.) He maintains a workmanlike approach that appears absent in popular music today, but is in fact carried on unrecognized by the ghostwriters for hip-hop's elite and Nashville's Music Row.

"I'm basically a songwriter, man," he says. "Songwriters are down in the fine print, you know? And I really enjoy that. I sing and play guitar, but songwriting is how I pay my rent. And so I didn't really need a lot of publicity to get people to record the songs. If I was strictly an artist, I'd have to learn to dance and get a shiny suit and stuff."

Instead he lives off royalty checks, "mows the lawn, buys groceries," and records at his home studio in Escondido, Calif., at his leisure.

"I'm semiretired, man, but of course I've been semiretired most of my life."

Besides cash-cow dinosaurs like Clapton and Skynyrd, young artists like Beck and Band of Horses have recently revisited Cale's songs. Different as they are in interpretation, each of these songs contains the kernel of Cale — that evocative, ineffable quality that can only be described as cool.

"The music is the same if you go all the way back to the first albums I made or the middle or whatever," Cale says. "The thing that's different is the lyrics. When I was young, I wrote more about sex and rock 'n' roll and drugs and stuff, and now I write songs like an old man would write, because that's the perspective I have. But the music has a sameness to it, which is kinda my style."

JJ Cale plays the Triple Door at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday (sold out; information at 206-838-4333 or www.tripledoor.net).

More must-see shows this weekend:

Tonight

Josh Tillman was a harrowing folk singer and guitarist before he joined Fleet Foxes (8 p.m. tonight at The Crocodile; $10).

Saturday

Expect big things from See Me River and quietly haunting things from Widower when they play the KEXP benefit at The Sunset Saturday (with Gerald Collier and Zach Harjo, 6:30 p.m.-2 a.m.; $8).

Jonathan Zwickel: zwickelicious@gmail.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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