Let’s get the irony out of the way: Don Henley just put out Cass County, a lovely and mostly understated country album. This is roughly forty years after he and Glenn Frey engineered a rather dramatic departure from the banjo noodlings and pedal steel flourishes found on the Eagles’ first few records. Seems you can take the boy out the country, but…
Henley ditched the country vibe in the mid 70s, when bands like Poco and the Flying Burrito Brothers had perhaps exhausted the country-rock genre with their twangy tunes about “Good Feelin’s to Know” and “Devils in Disguise.” So the peaceful easy troubadours hired a third guitarist (Don Felder) and got to work writing such rock classics as “One of These Nights,” “Life in the Fast Lane,” and the narrative epic that forever immortalized California, their adopted homeland where “you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.”
And things turned out just fine. Obscene money was made. Gold trophies were earned. Hotel rooms were demolished. A break came in the early 80s and solo careers were launched, Henley’s perhaps being the most fruitful.
No one could ever accuse Henley of being particularly prolific. Cass County is his fifth post-Eagles effort since 1982’s I Can’t Stand Still. Just as well. The lack of wear and tear on his vocal chords has perhaps preserved his voice to an almost uncanny degree. “Take a Picture of This,” the fourth track from Cass County, sounds like it could be an outtake from one of his 80s albums. This doesn’t stop Henley from enlisting the help of some harmony angels, including Alison Krauss, Miranda Lambert, Dolly Parton – even Mick Jagger.
Often the results are pretty and tasteful. Check out the synergy on “Too Far Gone,” where Henley and Krauss blend together in the spirit of Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris circa 1972. And though Jagger’s vocals on the opening tune, Tift Merritt’s lovely “Bramble Rose,” may be confident and countrified, they come off as kind of superfluous.
A prerequisite for any Don Henley project is a writing partner. Whether penning Eagles songs with Glenn Frey and de facto Eagles member, J.D. Souther, or solo classics with the likes of Bruce Hornsby and Mike Campbell of the Heartbreakers, Henley seems buoyed when collaborating with others.
Enter Stan Lynch, ex-Heartbreaker drummer and old cohort of Henley’s dating back to Henley’s 1984 album Building the Perfect Beast. Aided occasionally by the likes of Timothy B. Schmit and Stuart Smith (Felder’s replacement in the Eagles), the pair manages to compose a mostly pleasant batch of original country tunes. It’s true they can’t touch the blue collar poetry of Merle Haggard’s best work, and no one’s going to replace their copy of Willy Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger with Cass County.
But that doesn’t seem to be what Henley and Lynch were going for.
These are simple songs with simple themes: aging, working, loving, searching for dignity in the face of unfairness and loss. Sometimes the results are lovely and poignant as in “Words Can Break Your Heart,” perhaps the least country tune on the record. Sometimes they come off as a bit forced as in “Waiting Tables,” a dirge-like cliché about premature nuptials, single motherhood, and dead-end streets. Sometimes they border on embarrassing: “No Thanks You,” nearly salvaged with some nice guitar work by Vince Gill, boasts a cringe-worthy chorus with lines like “I think I’m smelling a rat” and “you must think I’m blind as a bat.”
Some stellar covers help to balance out the record: Jesse Winchester’s “The Brand New Tennessee Waltz” and the Louvin Brothers’ “When I Stop Dreaming” are performed to near perfection.
Henley’s fan base might be disoriented by Cass County, named after the east Texas town from where the singer hails. It’s likely they’ve been waiting for another Eagles album or perhaps a worthy companion to 1989’s The End of the Innocence. But once you get past the duets and pedal steel, there seems to be something familiar about the record. Like Henley’s best songs over the years, from “The Last Resort” to “The Boys of Summer” to “The End of the Innocence,” Cass County is full of laments. Whether he’s a cocaine cowboy singing about environmental concerns or a cantankerous soon-to-be septuagenarian bemoaning lost love, Henley’s focus has often been regret.
Whether the singer’s next move is an Eagles record, a follow up to Cass County, or a more traditional solo outing, his fans have proven loyal and patient. Cass County recently featured at number 1 on not only the country chart, but Billboard’s national album sales chart. At a recent concert at the Forum in Inglewood, the singer took a moment to acknowledge the accolade: “At this stage of the game, ladies and gentlemen, you don’t know what a miracle that is. But I’ll take it.”
Our feelings as well.