Veteran singer-songwriter J.J. Cale was understandably flattered when longtime musical admirer Eric Clapton asked him to make an album together. But the spotlight-shunning Cale, who has lived quietly on three acres near Escondido, Calif., for the past 17 years, was taken aback at the title Clapton chose for the album.
"The Road to Escondido" hits a little too close to home for Cale, a low-key artist who has always cherished his privacy and his ability to go unrecognized in public."That was all Eric's idea; he thought that title was hilarious. Well, 'hilarious' is the wrong word," Cale said recently from Valley Center, where he lives with his wife and musical partner, Christine Lakeland. After a week of rehearsals with Clapton at Cale's rural abode, the album was recorded last August in Los Angeles.
"Coming up with album titles is kind of an art form, and Eric stayed here while we were getting ready to make the album in L.A. 'The Road to Escondido' caught his fancy. He asked me: 'What do you think?' I said: 'I don't know, man. I live around here and you don't.'"
Then again, at least the album isn't called "The Road to Valley Center."
"You got that right," said Cale, who moved to Valley Center in 1989 primarily because of the privacy its under-the-radar location afforded him.
"You gotta remember there's hardly any town in Valley Center. What's really ironic is I go to Escondido almost every day to get gas or groceries, and people think I'm some retired guy walking around. The week Eric was here, we'd go eat at Denny's or IHOP or wherever ... and anywhere we walked in, everybody recognized him, I mean, we're talking autographs ... we couldn't eat. That's one of the reasons I didn't like the title 'The Road to Escondido,' because I don't want to (deal with) that."
But album titles can be misleading. So can album covers.
None of the 14 songs on "The Road to Escondido" - 11 of which Cale wrote - are about Escondido. None of them mention or make any reference to the city, any surrounding community, or anywhere in San Diego County.
Commenting on the themes of his song lyrics over the course of his nearly 35-year solo career, the 67-year-old Cale laughingly noted: "It's been mainly (about) sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll."
The cover photo for "The Road to Escondido" was shot on the shoulder of a two-lane country road. It shows a baseball-hatted Clapton, 61, casually strumming an acoustic guitar as he sits on the back of a weathered pickup truck. Its hood is aloft and Cale stands nearby with a hand-scrawled cardboard sign that reads: Escondido.
In fact, the album cover was shot at Paramount Ranch, which is north of Los Angeles between Highway 101 and Malibu Creek State Park.
"What Eric originally wanted was a picture of me and him in my little van," Cale recalled. "And I said, 'I don't really like people coming up and (recognizing me), and saying 'Hey, man.' So, of course, that didn't impress him at all."
A warm, self-effacing man who is as laid-back as his music, Cale has been a quintessential cult artist since not long after Clapton scored a Top 20 hit in 1970 with his reverent rendition of "After Midnight," which Cale wrote around 1968.
Cale's version was recorded after he and musical pal Leon Russell moved from their native Oklahoma to Los Angeles in 1964. Released as a Cale single, the original "After Midnight" was an instant flop. Saxophonist Bobby Keys, who played with Cale in an early version of Delaney & Bonnie, later gave Clapton a copy of "After Midnight."
Cale, who had moved back to Tulsa, remembers Keys phoning to tell him "After Midnight" would be on the English guitar star's first solo album.
"I thought: 'Well, that won't go anywhere,'" Cale said. "A year later, they started playing it on every radio station, including in my hometown. The first time I heard it on my car radio I just drove off to the side of the road. Because I'd never heard anything of my own on the radio before."
Clapton's success with "After Midnight" earned Cale a record deal that led to his 1971 debut album, the aptly titled "Naturally." Fifteen more solo albums have followed, each featuring Cale's earthy but impeccable blend of blues, country, rock and Western swing.
Clapton recorded Cale's "Cocaine" in 1977. Their understated but stirring work together on the "The Road to Escondido" reaffirms why Cale is so revered by his peers. In a San Diego Union-Tribune interview last year, Clapton said: "J.J. is pretty close to the ideal ... I like his principles."
Clapton and Cale first met in 1975, when he sat in with Cale at a London concert. They did not cross paths again until 2004, when he invited Cale to perform at his all-star Crossroads Guitar Festival in Dallas. It was then that Clapton asked Cale if he would produce a solo album for him.
Cale agreed and later sent Clapton nearly two-dozen songs, half by him, half by members of his band and other friends. Clapton chose all of Cale's songs and passed on the others. After completing a few songs in Los Angeles, Clapton asked Cale to fully share the musical spotlight on the album, which is credited to "J.J. Cale & Eric Clapton."
Would the media-shy Cale have agreed to make a duo album with Clapton from the outset?
"No," replied Cale, who politely declined an offer to join Clapton's imminent fall tour of Asia and Australia. "Not because of Eric, but ... I'm perfectly satisfied doing what it is I do. And I've noticed that because Eric is in the big time and up there with the greats ... there are a whole lot more people involved with what he does than with what I do.
"I'm pretty much retired; I've done everything I wanted to do. This whole idea was Eric's. He recorded those two songs of mine and kept me from having to get a job and gave me an income, so this was my payback to him. After the whole project was done and it came out the way it did, I kind of thought Eric snuck in and tried to raise my profile a bit."
Bassist Nathan East performed on several songs on the album and has been a member of Clapton's band since the mid-1980s.
"I would think there was no preconceived plan to ease J.J. in. But you never know, and Eric's a very clever guy," East said. "They are almost like two brothers. In the studio sometimes they would trade lines on a song and at some points, unless you were looking at them, it was hard to distinguish whose voice you were hearing. They are very compatible, on and off their instruments. I know Eric has the utmost of respect for J.J.
"And," East added with a laugh, "I think it's so great that little Escondido is now going to be on the world map."
So does Escondido Mayor Lori Holt Pfeiler, who recently read a proclamation declaring the album's release date as "The Road to Escondido Day." Copies of the proclamation were sent to Cale and Clapton, although neither attended.
"I'm really uncomfortable doing something like that," said Cale, who happily notes he can again go unrecognized when he eats out in Escondido. "I've been here 17 years now, and it's been real smooth ... if Eric (couldn't) make it, I'd feel real stupid doing it by myself."