J. J Cale: Guitarist Molly Miller Weighs In

Dr. Molly Miller is a Los Angeles-based guitarist and songwriter who has carved a path as a performer, recording artist, and educator. With a “sophisticated and raw style” (according to Guitar Magazine), she’s a sought-after musician, touring and recording with artists like Jason Mraz and the Black Eyed Peas. She also leads her group, the Molly Miller Trio (with Jay Bellerose and Jennifer Condos), and shares her passion for music as a professor at the University of Southern California.

You might believe that her style evolves from jazz greats such as Django Reinhardt, George Benson, and Wes Montgomery, but as you listen to her latest instrumental release The Ballad of Hotspur (Interrabang Records), you get the feeling that while those names are touchpoints, Miller’s vision is all her own.

When I asked Miller for the one album that has influenced her, she surprisingly chose J.J. Cale’s 1971 debut Naturally. Cale (who died in 2013) may not be a household name, but it was his distinct blend of blues, rockabilly, country, and jazz that gave his work undeniable, iconic status, especially in the hands of his musical peer, Eric Clapton.

J.J. Cale’s Naturally is the album that inspired you. If I took that on the surface, I don’t hear anything remotely close to your sound.

I just love that guitar playing. I love the vibe. How ego-less it feels. There’s just this understated coolness. I spend all this time in jazz, in the contemporary world, where sometimes people think more is better. It’s not more is better. It’s less. Those are the kind of records that I’m really drawn to. And Naturally was the first that I got into. I mean, I can’t say any more about that. He’s not showing off.

Here’s the thing people are gonna know: it’s all because of Clapton. You get Cale’s version of “After Midnight” in 1967. That inspires Clapton in 1970, and then Cale takes it back for Naturally. How do you make the connection in all these versions?

I know! And then “Call Me the Breeze”, for example. First Cale, then Clapton, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and then John Mayer. Which is also fun to see that lineage of guitar players. To me, J.J. Cale is even more important because he’s the reason Eric Clapton has songs, which maybe is an overstatement because Clapton clearly has a huge catalog outside of the covers. But some of his biggest hits go back to J.J. Cale, which is kind of an interesting thing, I think.

You talked about less is more. We have Clapton being kind of flash, remaking it at this super frenetic pace. So how do you feel about his version?

You know, I love Clapton’s version, and it draws to something that I love so much, which is arranging music. I love the different expressions of the same song, and what they can mean when they’re played differently. “After Midnight” is an anti-drug song which you would never know. I love both versions. But J.J. Cale’s is it for me. It’s the ‘I don’t give a damn. I’m hanging out. I’m back here. I don’t gotta prove a darn thing that I love.’ That draws me to his version. I could listen to it on repeat forever.

I was playing Naturally through a couple of times. There are some songs that are two and a half minutes at most. You’re talking about an era of music that was anthemic: you could go on for six minutes on a guitar solo back in 1970, and people were still gonna hang on the song. But Cale was having none of that.

Yes, and that’s something that the trio tries to do. I mean, we have a couple of songs on the record that are more than three or four minutes, but a lot of our songs are really short. But that’s definitely a part of our ideology. I love shredding and having a long open solo, which I do on one song on the record, but mostly it’s get to the point. Say it, get out. I think maybe some of this is in response to going to jazz school and doing gigs where ‘Let’s make it as long as we possibly can!’ because once again, longer is not better. [Laughs]

I listened to “Call the Doctor” and for a nanosecond when he begins to sing, he sounds like James Taylor. The timbre and the cadence of him being laconic. It’s just like he’s telling a story.

I love the record because I think that’s it. He has his own thing. He did the record and then, he hid out for a while. He didn’t want to be in the limelight. He just wanted to create music. Which is, I think, a really beautiful thing, because I think people get caught up in the reception of stuff.

How did you discover this album? Was it through a reference? Did you just walk into a record store and start going through the vinyl bins?

Jay Bellerose, who’s in my trio, introduced it to me right when we started playing. This was ten years ago. He asked me if I had checked him out because he said something I was doing in my playing had reminded him of J.J. Cale. And I was like, “I don’t really know him.” I’ve heard the name, but I don’t really know this music. He’s like, “Check out Naturally,” and I was glued to that record because that is some of what I strive for. Really coherent statements. And it’s been one of those records that I always come back to.

It’s a real departure for that time in music.

It just spoke to me so clearly. Everything is a response, a reaction to whatever is a reaction to what’s going on. I still love a lot of guitar music that is more flashy, that has more crazy changes. And I appreciate all these different types of music. But I’m drawn to the clarity of what he’s doing. It’s understated. There is a wave of his importance in the trajectory of his guitar playing. Bill Frisell, and of course Clapton and John Mayer, and all these people that are somehow kind of tied back to him.

Do you think it’s because of his Midwest upbringing? People want to attach him to the label called the’ Tulsa Sound.’ Do you think that he invented it? Or was it something that he took in from somewhere?

Yeah, I think of Leon Russell, too, who I love and is part of that Tulsa sound. And there’s that same cool, collected kind of vibe, and I’m sure it’s all a combination of things. The drum machine stuff that Cale does is so wacky and I think it’s a combination of being a true artist and having a voice. I grew up in a beach city in California, so I feel like I can’t get that out of my playing. I just wanna be on a beach and hanging out and playing tennis and have a guitar in my hand. And I think the same way I think a Tulsa boy is gonna have that that cool, laid-back vibe.

The last song on the album is called “Crying Eyes” and it has a very tropical feel to it. Seems like Jimmy Buffett should have been with him on this.

Well, there’s a quirkiness to it, too, because it’s not just “I’m a cool kid.” It’s like “I’m a whackadoodle, too!” You know it’s like a little bit of this quirkiness that I think also draws me to it, because I love that there’s a little comedy to what he’s doing. It’s funny and conversational. That sort of quirkiness is what I think of with Jimmy Buffett, too.

But he just didn’t have that kind of showman persona. I know that Cale and Clapton did an album together much later [2006’s The Road To Escondido], but there was a time he said he was homeless and didn’t have any money. And again, Clapton covered his “Cocaine.” I always wonder what would have happened if he had built a following like Clapton earlier in his career.

I know what you’re saying. It seems like he was a recluse, at least from what I’ve read. I know he did the Crossroads [Guitar Festival] later down the line [2004]. You know what I kind of wished for him, is that he had made more money off these songs that are mega-hits. And could have lived, you know, not homeless! I think that the limelight can be really hard for people who don’t want it and it can drive them to madness. I think he withdrew for a reason.

There’s always the curious point that when somebody starts out and does all this work on their first album, there’s that sophomore slump, which I don’t feel is relevant to Cale. Because everybody knows that’s the J.J. Cale sound. That’s the J.J. Cale guitar.

Y’know, I try not to do that because I believe I take in all my different influences. I play the guitars that speak to me, and so many of my influences play all different types. So I don’t, especially for my own music, try to get a ‘J.J. Cale sound,’ or a Grant Green sound, or whatever. I think I’m always just trying to get a sound that resonates with me for the song. Otherwise, I’m trying to be someone else, and I don’t want to be someone else. I want to take in certain elements I enjoy or their sound, but not too much.

It’s staggering to think that for who he was, he influenced so many. Especially when names come back like his and need to be appreciated.

There are so many records that are so important to me. But for some of the elements we’ve talked about like the clarity and like you said, the simplicity. His songs are awesome.

-Amy Hughes

Photo: J.J. Cale, 2006 (Louis Ramirez via Wikimedia Commons)




1 comment on “J. J Cale: Guitarist Molly Miller Weighs In

  1. I am going to be seeking out Molly Miller’s music in the morning. Anyone who cites J.J. Cale as an influence will grab my attention. I have always been drawn to his understated and tasty playing and the deep groove underlying his superb songwriting and laidback singing style that mirrors that guitar playing. Troubadour is one of my favorite albums. Her reference to Grant Green, another favorite, piques my interest as well. I have been known to tell people, truthfully, that I really started to appreciate Eric Clapton’s playing after he discovered J.J. Cale.

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