J.J. Cale says there is one major problem with being a recluse.
"People always come up to you and say, "Man, I thought you were dead.' It's really weird."
Of course, Cale is very much alive and kicking. In fact, the 55-year-old Oklahoman recently unveiled his latest effort for Virgin Records, Closer To You (album No. 11), and he's even embarking on a small tour to promote the new product.
Not bad for someone who literally dropped out of the music business a few years ago so he "could get some peace and quiet."
The fellow whose engaging blend of rock 'n' roll, blues, country and jazz and whose songwriting talents produced such wry, compelling pop classics as After Midnight, Cocaine, Crazy Mama, Magnolia and Call Me The Breeze cultivated a long-term bumpy relationship with the music industry. But, lately, he has finally found some common ground.
"I've always enjoyed playing," said Cale in a recent interview from his home in San Diego. "If all it meant were to just stand there and play my axe and sing, I could have gone on forever."
But Cale says he has learned to be less bitter, adding, "I feel like I have more control over the way I want to pursue making music."
Much of that pursuit involves the recording process. Closer To You is a product of Cale's vivid studio explorations, blending overdubbed vocal parts and layers of instrument tracks into a dazzling musical composite.
"I've always tried to come up with something that would catch your ear," says Cale, who has owned his own studio for more than two decades. "I'd say writing songs is, for me, as much playing the tape recorder as it is playing guitar or writing words."
Thirty-five years ago, Cale broke out of the Tulsa, Okla., beer-hall circuit, first heading east to Nashville, and a stint as guitarist in a country caravan (backing the Louvin Brothers and Little Jimmie Dickens), and then west to hang out in the burgeoning California rock scene.
In the late 1960s, he cut a few promising singles that got little PR help from the record label, and settled into a regular diet of club and studio work. In 1970, Eric Clapton created a hit with Cale's After Midnight and slowly the doors began opening.
A chance signing to his friend Leon Russell's new Shelter label in 1972 yielded the quirky, blues single, Crazy Mama, and before long the elusive Cale was getting valuable airplay.
The rapid climb of Crazy Mama to No. 22 on the charts caught Cale completely off guard. One night he was approached during a break in his club gig in Los Angeles by a producer from American Bandstand.
"He said, "Come down and do Crazy Mama and the exposure will run your tune up 10 places on Billboard.' "Cale agreed to the appearance, but he backed out when told he must lip-synch the song. The next week, his hit-to-be began its unceremonious fall from the Top 40.
Cale never again approached commercial success, yet his shadowy, insightful songs earned him a diehard following, which faithfully awaits (sometimes for exceedingly long periods) each new release like Cubs fans yearn for the pennant.
As far as performing is concerned, the self-conscious Cale remains somewhat disinclined, but has learned to come to terms with being in the spotlight.
"Before, if you didn't get up and dance, if you sat and watched me play, I got real nervous," he says. "Now, I kind of know what it is I do, and it's easier to get up there."
Cale says he rarely indulges himself with introspection on his career. "I figure that most people will remember me for the songs I wrote. I can still do that pretty well _ at least as well as Mick Jagger can still stomp around on stage."
In concert at 8 p.m. Thursday at the Players of Sarasota, 838 N Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. For information, call (813) 365-2494.