"To Tulsa and Back"


J.J. Cale, now 65, has lived for years in the California desert, even though his music has the slinky, swampy sound of Mississippi and Louisiana. He was born and raised, however, in the flat grasslands of Oklahoma. He grew up in a late-'50s Tulsa scene that included such figures as Leon Russell, David Gates, Roger Tillison, Walt Richmond, Jamie Oldaker, Jim Karstein and Carl Radle, most of whom followed Russell out to L.A. and left their mark on the music of Delaney & Bonnie, Joe Cocker, Eric Clapton and the Tractors. Isolated in the Midwest, these Tulsa musicians had developed a distinctive style, an odd combination of drawling country vocals and slippery R&B rhythms.

No one distilled that sound more purely than Cale, a quicksilver guitarist and sleepy baritone singer. "To Tulsa and Back," his first studio album in eight years, returns him to his home town, where he hooked up with such old compadres as Richmond and Karstein. For the most part, it's the familiar Tulsa sound, though there are some new wrinkles: the ping-pong synth on the catchy "My Gal," the fiddle fills on the workingman lament "One Step," the mandolin fills on the political protest of "The Problem," the swing-jazz feel of "These Blues" and the super-fast shuffle of "Motormouth."

Those five songs are the ones he did with his band -- the eight others, he multitracked by himself -- and not coincidentally those five are the best. Cale, a notorious recluse whose interviews are nearly as rare as his tours, thrives in the give-and-take with his Oklahoma pals, who push him into some of his most inventive playing since the early '80s. On his own, his tendency toward minimalism often desiccates the songs.

-- Geoffrey Himes

Appearing Thursday at the Birchmere and June 22 at the Rams Head Tavern. * To hear a free Sound Bite from J.J. Cale, call Post-Haste at 301-313-2200 and press 8102. (Prince William residents, call 703-690-4110.)