‘Stay Around’ An interview with Christine Lakeland Cale

"I am so honored to be welcoming JJ Cale to Telluride. He is my all-time favorite musician. So please put them together for JJ Cale.”

That is how I introduced JJ Cale from the Fred Shellman Memorial Stage to a Telluride audience on July 2, 1994.

I’ve doubled my age since then, and I’d say I’ve doubled my appreciation for Cale, but you can’t double favorite musician of all time. He still holds that distinction, in my ears and in heart.

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The column you are reading, which is also the name of my radio show at KOTO, is named after a JJ Cale song, “One Step ahead of the Blues.” That song also appeared in my film “Scrapple.” I’ve tried my best to live my life that way, because if you’re not one step ahead of the blues …

I was fortunate to produce two shows with JJ Cale in my early 20s. I’ve met some really cool people in my life, but I’ve only met one Jedi and his name was JJ Cale.

When I heard in January that a new JJ Cale album was coming out, I was beyond ecstatic. The idea that I was going to hear new Cale music was beyond incredible.

The first single “Chasing You” came out in February and knocked me out. The video, which features footage of Cale joyfully touring the country, actually brought me to tears. I thought the rest of the record was coming out in late May.

Last week, I went to Spotify to see if it had come out yet and I found that it had actually come out in April. I immediately played it. I could not believe it. It sounded like an actual JJ Cale record. The last compilation of Cale music, 2007’s “Rewind,” was the one misfire in Cale’s 30 years of recording. It was clearly a cut and paste effort and it was not up to the standard of the rest of Cale’s records.

But not “Stay Around.” This was clearly lovingly curated and flowed beautifully from one great song to another. The title track “Stay Around” almost brought me to my knees. The song opens with 90 seconds of the most sublime Cale guitar licks and then his signature vocals kick in “stick around, stick around, let’s make love one more time.”

 Cale wrote some of the most beautiful love songs of any musician I’ve ever heard. “Magnolia” is well known, but for one with which you might not be familiar, give “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” a listen from my favorite Cale record “Grasshopper.” “Of all the stars that shine at night, none can match the brilliant light that I see in your eyes.” That could be Shakespeare, but it’s JJ Cale. “Stay Around” is in that rare ether.

It was 10 p.m. at night and I thought to myself, “ I have to interview Christine Lakeland Cale,” (Cale’s guitar player, wife and companion of 36 years). I did a quick internet search using her name and the name of the record and the word interview, and nothing came up.

I knew that his manager was Mike Kappus and found a telephone number for him. I called his office at 10 p.m. and left him a message. I reminded him who I was and that we had done some shows together with Cale. I mentioned how much I loved his music and that I wanted to interview Christine. It was basically a fanboy message and I thought to myself when it was over, “Well, that was dumb. I’ll never hear from him.”

Three days later I got a call from Mike saying that he played my message for Christine and that she agreed to be interviewed by me.

I have a picture of Christine, my brother Chris and myself in 1988 backstage at a show at the Bottom Line in New York City’s East Village. We had talked our way backstage and hung out a bit with JJ and Christine. I was 20. She was 33. The idea that I would be interviewing her 31 years later knocked me out.

On Friday, I spoke with Christine on the phone from her home in Southern California.

Geoff Hanson: Where are you from? How did you become a musician?

Christine Lakeland Cale: I was born and raised in Michigan with a Midwestern work ethic, which is a great place to be from. I left the morning after high school graduation to Nashville, and I had a job in a bar band after three days. A couple of years later after working road gigs, I met John in Nashville, where we were both living. 

GH: Did you meet in a musical context?

CLC: Before the internet and the world changing, musical worlds use to be very loose. And Nashville was a town of musicians and songwriters, I went there because I knew it was a location for a lot of activity and work, and it was. And I had come off the road and everyone went to everyone else’s gigs. There was no huge security problem, people weren’t afraid all the time. A friend said, “Come with us, we’re going backstage.” I went down with some friends of mine. It was a benefit for a Tennessee prison; BB King was the headliner along with Waylon Jennings. There were all kinds of people backstage. Cale was there with a bunch of his buddies. They had taken a break from recording. Chris Etheridge introduced us; he was Willie Nelson’s bass player. He said, “I want you to meet John Cale.” He introduced us and we ended up hanging out and talking the rest of the evening and watching music and going to a bar afterwards and that conversation turned into 36 years. John was 38 when we meet and I was 22.

GH: When did you become a member of John’s band?

CMC: Oddly, the night we met, he had someone that needed to be replaced and he said, “We’re playing a couple of gigs next week, why don’t you come on the gigs?” At that age, I was not seasoned and it scared me to death to have no rehearsal, but I said yes. I showed up at the gigs and I knew his band could do whatever they were doing, they didn’t need me there. All I was told was sing a couple in the middle and find out what key it’s in from one of the other players. There’s a great lesson for young musicians, when you are sitting in or jamming or starting out which is, “When in doubt, lay out. If you don’t know what to do, don’t make any noise.” That means, just listen, which is so rare nowadays, except among serious musicians and jazzers. So I made it through the first weekend just listening and singing a couple in the middle. That was trial by fire. From then on I was on the gigs. 

GH: Laying back is a staple of John’s playing. He was an incredible guitar player, but he didn’t play many long solos, he put the notes where they belonged. He described his playing as “laying back.”

CLC: The unique thing about Cale’s playing and what other musicians were very hip to was his rhythm and phrasing. It was the “sometimes less is more” school. That is a cliché. But he didn’t just talk the talk, he walked the walk. He had a way of editing his recordings, his own playing. He knew when it needs this and it needs that. We call it Cale’s special sauce.

GH: Cale had a big influence on Eric Clapton as he transitioned from “Clapton is God” to Clapton the slowhand.

CLC: Eric listened to a lot of things and was dubbed Slowhand before he met Cale. I’m sure he listened to Cale because his first zero-to-60-type success came because of Clapton hearing “After Midnight” and recording it. Cale was an unknown at that time and they hadn’t met yet. But, yes, Clapton went from Cream, a power rock trio, but just as all musicians do, you look for new things to get off on, new ways of playing, and Cale’s style appealed to Eric.

GH: These records Clapton was making in that era all had Cale songs on them. “Cocaine” was on “Slowhand” and “I’ll make love to you any old time” was on “Backless”, which in many ways sounds like a Cale record. John’s music was right there as he was going from guitar superhero to playing between the notes, if you will.

CLC: They first met in 1976 and those records were coming out at that time. I think that’s when Eric really made a connection with John the person. You meet someone in person it has more of an effect on you. I always said they had a mutual admiration society happening.

GH: In a Vanity Fair interview, Clapton was asked what living person he admired most. He responded JJ Cale. What do you think Clapton saw in John that he admired so much?

CMC: I can’t speak for Eric, but having been around them they enjoyed each other’s company and they got along famously. I think they both were straight shooters in the sense that when you are in the music world and when you’re a person of note I think you probably get a lot of BS. It’s refreshing when you are around people and they don’t have any of those qualities. John would tell you how he felt and whether he liked something or not and there was no tiptoeing. I think the honesty was refreshing to someone like Eric who probably has dealt with all kinds of things in his life of people with ulterior motives and angles. John had no angles to why he was doing. He was pretty much cards on the table. They enjoyed each other’s company and working together in the later years, and the conversations they had and so on because there was no game. 

GH: I was interviewing Mike Campbell (from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers), and I said to him, “You’re known for your economy of notes, JJ Cale must be a big influence. And he said, “JJ Cale is my biggest influence. He is the guitarist who has influenced me the most.”

CLC: Mike and Ben (keyboard player for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers) sat in with us at a gig in Chicago, Tom and Mike sat in with us at McCabes in 2009, and Mike was on my third record, “Reckoning.” When Eric did the tribute record (“The Breeze: An Appreciation of JJ Cale”), he brought in all kinds of people. I was just a zombie sitting in the studio, Eric and his team put it together and Mike played on those sessions. John and Mike were very close.

GH: Dozens and dozens of artists have covered John’s songs. Very few artists have been covered more. What were some of your favorite Cale covers?

CLC: I can’t pick out one artist over another. As a songwriter Cale was always jazzed when anybody covered one of his song. Whether it was Bobby Bare covering “Call me the Breeze,” or Cissy Houston doing “Cajun Moon,” I don’t care if it was a rock cover, it didn’t matter if it made $10 or $10,000, when somebody sings your songs you cant top that feeling. The one thing I can compare it to is maybe having children. That’s maybe the joy of your life when someone covers your material. It wasn’t as if John sat around judging “this is a better version that that,” he was always like “wow, so and so cut one of my songs.” There was no judgment, just that somebody listened and someone decided to sing what you wrote.

GH: Are you making music? Are you playing? Are you going to put another record out?

CMC: I’m always doing stuff and writing and making music, but for the last three years my focus has been putting this new record together because there was a lot of archiving to be done and I had to make sure I had gone through all of John’s workshop stuff to make sure I wasn’t missing anything. I knew the stuff that I had heard and then when I found something that I hadn’t heard that was all the more reason to keep being thorough and searching through the hard drives to see if I found all the bits and pieces that might be from just tinkering in his home studio.

My main focus since I started archiving was to back everything up and make sure there were safety copies of the music and then sort through it all, and find out how many mixes and what versions there were of different songs and what had he used and what he hadn’t. All that sorting of the recordings and making the licensing deal and choosing the label and getting the record to where it actually came out last month really was my main focus for the last two or three years. When people ask me what’s next I say, “I am really enjoying where I’m at now” because it took so long to experience this and see the record come out and see peoples reaction to more Cale music. I didn’t want to miss it by being tied up with something else. I’m doing the Ram Dass “Be Here Now” thing and I don’t know what I’ll be doing in three to six months, but there are many options.

GH: A song like “Stay Around,” were you saying, ‘OK, I gotta find ‘Stay Around.’ I know it’s in there.” Or did you just stumble upon it. How many of the tunes on the record did you know existed and how many were surprises?

CLC: When I heard “Stay Around,” I just fell apart. I was just, “Why didn’t he put this out?” Everyone has read that if they wanted 12 songs on an album John would cut 15 or 16. There were always outtakes. I knew the situation of a couple records so I knew why some songs didn’t make it on that record or that’s why that song didn’t make it on another. “Stay Around” floored me. I have to give props to the label because they came up with the idea of calling the album “Stay Around” because the music will stay around. I thought, “I’m too close to this. I didn’t see that, I didn’t think that. It’s a perfect title.”

A few of the other demos I knew of. I’d heard them, I played on some of them, I was aware of them. But when I found things I hadn’t heard, that was the most exciting. My thing was trying to make good choices. John didn’t leave a set of instructions and songs to say “here put this out in case anything happens to me.” I had to try and follow the steps of his process and think if he was working on another record, I bet he was thinking about including these three or four songs, they kept popping up. He remixed this one particular song 20 times. John used to burn CDs and drive around and sometimes there were the same couple of songs and I would think he was experiencing with sequencing.

GH: What was the criteria for songs for the record?

CMC: My first parameter was I wanted to find music that no one had heard. Sometime there is a grainy video from a Cale concert on YouTube, for instance there’s a song called “King City” that’s never been on a record, and I have a version of “King City” I’d like to see come out, I could be on another collection, “Posthumous 2.” But I didn’t want to use “King City” because I thought true Cale fans might have heard it. I wanted to find music no one has ever heard and I wanted to max out the Cale factor. He wrote them, he played them, he mixed them, he had the most input as to how they ended up. It didn’t matter where they were recorded. If he had finished them off, and overdubbed and put his special sauce on them, then people would be the most pleased. It’s Cale, Cale and Cale. That was my criteria. For ease of songs, these songs were unpublished, so there was simple paperwork to be done, there wasn’t going to be any hold up to getting the music out there.

GH: But didn’t you write “My Baby Blues?”

CMC: Yes, you’re right, that is the one song that John didn’t write. It was the first song he and I recorded together in the studio in 1977, and then he cut his version in 1980 and it was an outtake, unused. When I found that on the hard drive and saw that he had gone back and reworked it and over dubbed and sang it I thought, “Oh my goodness, he revisited that old demo.” And I put it in the possible use pile. (Cale’s longtime manager) Mike Kappus and I put this collection together and we did everything by email and he had circled “My Baby Blues” as well. And I said, “I’m not sure we should use tat because I wrote it,” but Mike insisted we use it.

GH: I feel like you can call this a JJ Cale record, you don’t have to look at this as a posthumous pastiche of his music. It feels like the final JJ Cale. “Roll on” was the last record he did while he was alive in 2009. I think you can say “Stay Around” is Cale’s last record, at least until you put another record out.

CMC: Thank you, Geoff. When people say it’s a really good Cale record, it just makes me feel great because I was hoping I made good choices. That’s what I was hoping, that people would want to hear more Cale music and it would sound the way they expected Cale music to sound, because he had such a unique sound. There were multiple mixes of most of the songs and sometimes there were a lot notes on a recording, sometimes there were very little. Sometimes he would have overdubbed eight different guitar solos and I would find multiple mixes and then realize he kept mixing it and using a particular guitar solo so he must have really liked this guitar solo and it might say take four is the Gibson such and such through this set up and another might say this is a Fender guitar through this assorted set up and I could hear the difference and see why he had chosen this guitar solo, this sound, this is what he played and this is what ended up in the mix, and then I’d listen to multiple mixes trying to figure out what he considered the best mix. Sometimes he would circle a mix and I would think, “He must have liked this one,” so it was just trying to follow his process and make choices close to what he would have made.

GH: Did he produce all these songs in his home studio? Was there anything not done in his studio?

CLC: There are a couple of recordings where the basic tracks were recorded at other places over time and some were recorded in the living room. “Chasing You” was recorded in the living room. Some songs I wasn’t sure about. He would start with basic tracks and then he would put his touches on them, his special sauce. Musicians would always say, “We played in the studio, but when we finally heard it, it didn’t sound like what we heard in the studio.” That was his magic with recording gear.

He always liked to tinker with recording and sounds and “how does it change it if you turn this knob it makes it sound like that?” That was sort of a hobby as long as he was recording, getting gadgets and finding out what they would do to the sound.

GH: Is there another Cale record you can compare “Stay Around” to? Like, it sounds most like “Okie” or “Really?”

CLC: I can’t really compare it to other records, probably out of fear. All I was trying to do was to make it sound like what people would expect a Cale record to sound like. John used to always say, “I have to like it because my name goes on it.” So I was thinking, “What would he choose and would he like it” because I knew I was going to put his name on it. I did work on sequencing which is an old school thing which doesn’t matter as much anymore, but for those of us who grew up in the vinyl era you used to put a record out and it was how it flows and one of the things John and I used to talk about is not putting songs in the same key back to back so that it’s not a monotone thing where people don’t get any ear candy. I just focused on this record rather than dwelling on the past or looking at what’s going to be on the next one.

GH: Is there enough material for another Cale record?

CLC: There is. I just don’t want to get ahead of myself. We’ll just have to see. I don’t want to wear out our welcome. Maybe we give it a break and then come out with some Cale music after a while. It’s been 10 years between records and people were ready for it.

GH: Have you considered an instrumental Cale record? I love his instrumentals. I’m particularly drawn to the song “Durango,” which only appeared don the anthology “Anyway the Wind Blows.” It’s unlike anything I’ve ever heard of Cale’s. Its like Steely Dan meets Pink Floyd.

CLC: That’s a good description of it. Yes, an instrumental record has been discussed. We’ll see.

GH: Was making “Stay Around” a cathartic process? You mentioned that during the Clapton tribute album you were too devastated to contribute. At what point did you say, “I need to go through his music and do something with it.”

CLC: The first couple years after John died, I stumbled around in a fog. I didn’t know one end from another. Music is a really healing thing, and once I started going through the music it was healing and cathartic in a good way. It wasn’t a bummer, it wasn’t sad; it was a lot of good energy. Granted, there were days when I couldn’t listen to anything, which is why it took a couple of years. 

I reached out to Mike Kappus and said, “I have enough Cale songs that people haven’t heard, would you see if there’s any interest?” He took over the business end of it, and we had three offers for putting out a record and I decided to go with the French label Because Music.

And then it was a really exciting positive thing because we were moving forward with it. It was a healing thing to get it to this point and it makes me very happy when people respond to it in a positive way.

GH: It’s doing really well isn’t it, especially in Europe?

CLC: I think so far as charting and actual airplay, in some countries it’s doing a little bit better than the “Troubadour” record, which was his highest charting record. And that was back in 1976.

GH: Can you tell me a little about John’s writing process? Did he write the lyrics first or the music first, both?

CLC: I think John, even when he was just sitting around noodling on a guitar, he would hum along and I might find tapes where he was playing a particular ditty that he was playing on the guitar. I didn’t find too many things where there were words that didn’t have music so the music was what usually came first. He liked to play music. He didn’t sit down every day as if it were a job. He liked to play and if an idea came to him, he might say a few words to them, maybe he’d record them because his home set up was very simple, he’d just flip a switch, things were on and he’d record.

GH: That’s fascinating that the music drove the lyrics because he’s known most for his songwriting. Can you summarize John’s life philosophy?

CLC: I think simplicity was definitely a hallmark of both his life and his music. It’s deceptive how simple things are not so easy to do. They look easy, but they’re not.

GH: What do you think his legacy is? He would be 80, if he were alive. Where do you think his place in the canon is?

CLC:  I am the most biased when it comes to what he’s done, but I think if he was with us he would be an elder statesman in the blues/rock lexicon much like Willie Nelson is in the country/Americana genre. I think to younger people and musicians, I hope they might say, “Wow, he wrote ‘After Midnight’ when he was my age.” Maybe they can realize that if you work on your style and you polish it and hone it, it stays with you your whole life. I’m from the old school, I like rhythm and musicality and I am a song person. I think his legacy is that there’s always something to write a song about.