Wow. How to begin with an album that just blew me away?
Don Henley’s latest is a straight-up country album, and to be honest I had misgivings when I first heard of its release. I’ve always been a bit wary when it comes to country, and I admit that it’s because I don’t know enough about the genre. I don’t really know where to begin, and the country music that I do know and like comes mostly trickled down from random late night TV performances. And artists who wander into country almost always make me scratch my head. But because the Eagles practically invented country rock anyway, Henley does have the creds.
To begin with, in this album, he collaborates with such country luminaries as Dolly Parton, Lucinda Williams, Martina McBride, Trisha Yearwood, Allison Krauss, Miranda Lambert, and Merle Haggard. Wow. And also, Mick Jagger! I know enough for that line-up alone to take my breath away. And then there’s the songs.
Here’s the thing about Henley: he has an amazing voice – not perfect and smooth, in fact it sounds a bit worn down and sad and tired in its huskiness. He is also an incredible lyricist. This is the man who wrote “The Heart of the Matter”, which, not to exaggerate or anything, in my mind is one of the best songs in the history of forever. And since this is Henley we are talking about, the songs on Cass County are heart-breaking because they demand you to feel things and not just listen to them in the background. Most of the songs are melancholy reflections on hard-earned life lessons. They tell stories, but not in the cliché or superficial way that country is often derided for. Songs like “Take A Picture Of This”, “A Younger Man”, “When I Stop Dreaming” (with Dolly Parton), and “Too Far Gone” tell poignant stories about relationships falling apart. A restrained and toned down Mick Jagger also makes “Bramble Rose” more poignant.
But it’s not all downers here. There are also upbeat tracks like “No, Thank You”, which sounds a lot like a late Eagles hit, and his duet with Martina McBride on “That Old Flame”. It’s got a driving beat which somehow masks the bittersweet topic of old love. It’s also nice to know that in this album Henley collaborated with Steuart Smith, who was recruited by the Eagles after Don Felder left, and Timothy B. Schmit.
Cass County reminds me a lot of Henley’s last solo album, Inside Job, and its songs like “My Thanksgiving” and “Everything is Different Now”. Tracks like “The Cost of Living” (with Merle Haggard), “Praying for Rain”, and especially “Where I Am Now” continue the theme of lessons learned from a colorful life. Henley was right in the thick of the 70s rock and roll scene, and all the acrimony and struggles that the Eagles went through have been well-documented. I know nothing about Don Henley’s personal life, of course, but musicians like him who put out such introspective songs somehow give us a clue about what matters to them. And perhaps for Henley, his recurring reflections on growing up and growing older and wiser give us the biggest insight about his state of mind nowadays.
It seems that hardly anybody makes albums anymore, so when something like this comes along, it’s always a visceral thing. I really wish you could hear the album and that you have Spotify, because I promise it will be an experience. His website is also worth a visit, if only for the artwork that accompanies the information on each song.