Don Henley doesn't move fast because he can afford not to hurry. He can spend the better part of a decade waiting out a record contract, labor on a 90-minute Eagles reunion for maybe half a decade, then take another eight years before returning with Cass County, his first solo album in 15 years and only fifth overall. That's the mark of a man who takes his time, but all that chronology pales compared to the true journey Cass County represents: a return to Henley's country roots, whether they lie in the blissed-out, mellow sunshine of Southern California or the Texas home that provides this record with its name.
Don HenleyCass County(Capitol)Rating: 4 out of 5 stars While he isn’t generally considered a country artist, there is no question that C&W music has played a substantial part in Don Henley’s career. Named after the Texas county where he was raised, Henley doubles down on a melodic twang somewhere between “Lyin’ Eyes” and “Desperado” for a dozen track (16 on the deluxe version) that establishes his bona fides in the genre. Henley’s star status allows him to call first line players, and especially singers, to assist on his first solo release in 15 years, recorded in Dallas and Nashville.
Don Henley was country before it was cool, long before he was a singing, drumming and songwriting member of the Eagles. Cass County, his first solo album in 15 years, is named after the East Texas plains where Henley, now 68, grew up amid farming, oil rigs and the Southern radio crossfire of blues, gospel and honky-tonk music that produced rock & roll. Henley alludes to those roots and ideals in his true grit here — 11 original songs of working-stiff portraiture, broken-love autopsy and sunset-years judgment — along with a handful of rich-soil covers.
Fifteen years after his last solo album, the Eagle has landed. In Nashville. Five albums in 30-plus years is a pretty slim return by anyone’s standards. Don Henley’s last solo release was 2000’s Inside Job, issued after a protracted and ugly dispute with his old paymasters at Geffen. With the ….
As the occasional Eagle and one-time solo omnipresence approaches his 70th birthday, he’s been thinking about the corner of north-east Texas where he grew up. But Henley’s first solo album since 2000 is reflective rather than autobiographical; the thing he seems to have acquired from revisiting his home county is a renewed love of the country music he grew up with. Pedal steel, dobro and high, lonesome harmonies beguilingly abound (the last courtesy of guests Martina McBride, Miranda Lambert and several other country potentates).
A recent CBS Sunday Morning profile of Don Henley depicted him as a wealthy, successful man in search of something he can’t quite define, something related to his past, to the purity of childhood experiences. He’s buying up parts of his childhood town, he’s setting up a retirement farm with hopes of adding a cornfield like his dad had, so he can try and recapture the happiness of lying on his back in the cornfield, looking up at the sky. “I don’t think I’ve ever had a sense of well-being equal to that,” he says.
It may have been 15 years since Don Henley released his last solo album, but the Eagles singer, songwriter, and drummer proves he’s still got the juice — musically, lyrically, vocally, and professionally — on the splendid, country-kissed “Cass County. ” Having spent the last few years on the road with the classic rock band has not dampened the power and nuance of his familiar rasp, nor his ability to slice to the bone with couplets both potent and poignant. Recording largely in Nashville, Henley co-produced and co-wrote much of the album with buddy Stan Lynch, former drummer for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.
It is not enough simply to age. One must age with patina, that layer of imperfection and soot that indicates that not all has gone as planned, but you’ve survived. For many singers of a certain age, the world of country music — the older kinds, generally, but sometimes the modern ones — offers a sort of built-in weathering, a patina starter kit for squeaky-clean elders.