J.J. Cale was one of the most humble artists in American blues music. When speaking about his success in a 1996 interview, for example, he rebuffed the notion entirely, laughing at the very word: “All success is is money,” he said. “[All success got me was a nice guitar”. It’s this stoic attitude that made him one of the most enigmatic guitarists of his day, an intuitive player with an intimate knowledge of his instrument and his own ability. It’s also what led him to give such a fascinating insight into the fading influence of American blues music.
Speaking in 1996, at a time when blues music had ceased to feel relevant, Cale described the way in which American music fans tended to “eat their young” – metaphorically speaking of course. “If you look at the top 100 records, you’d have a hard time finding maybe six or seven blues albums on there, and the rest of em’ would be all kinds of music,” he added. “So, I think the reason its [the blues] no longer popular is because it was already popular in America. Anything that’s created here in America, people goes hog-wild over it and then the next generation goes: ‘oh that’s mom and dad’s music, we don’t wanna hear that.'”
For Cale, the fading popularity of blues music was clearly the result of a generational divide. The blues style has existed in America for as long as the plantations, but it really only established itself as a popular musical form in the 1920s, alongside an explosion of Black artists, such as Ma Rainey, who emerged from the Harlem Renaissance. But even as early as this, jazz and blues were already being utilised by white composers like George Gershwin, whose ‘Rhapsody In Blue’ made him an international star, while Black composers wanting to make their way in the formal music industry, such as ragtime pianist Scott Joplin, faced rejection and racism at every turn. By the 1950s, blues was an essential American export and came to soundtrack the emergence of the newly coined ‘teenage’ generation.
For young people such as J.J. Cale, it was eye-opening. “My generation didn’t care about the Frank Sinatra, big band sound,” he began. “Rock ‘n’ roll was for the young people, and, at one time, the big bands appealed to really young people. So it’s more of a generational thing. The young Blacks of today don’t care anything about blues, they like rap – that’s new. Blues is grandma’s music.”
Whether it was due to a lack of diversity, the emergence of hip-hop, or the complex web of socio-political issues surrounding blues music, by the ’90s, it was clear that musicians like Cale and Eric Clapton had had their time in the sun. However, Cale remained optimistic that the genre would make a comeback. “Country music was big in the ’40s and now it’s big again, but there was a big 30-40 year period where it is not what you’d call mainstream. Country music in America is almost mainstream at present. Blues may do that. Musicians will always keep it popular because musicians love the blues.”
As fortune would have it, in the 2000s, blues did make something of a comeback, with groups like The White Stripes breathing waves of fuzz-laden life into what had been a dying genre. Cale must have been over the moon.