On “Cass County,” Don Henley’s first solo album in 15 years, the Eagles’ founding member is surrounded by women.
Dolly Parton, Miranda Lambert, Trisha Yearwood, Alison Krauss, Lucinda Williams, Martina McBride, Lee Ann Womack, Michelle Branch, Ashley Monroe and Dixie Chicks/Court Yard Hounds members Martie Maguire and Emily Robison are just a few of the collaborators joining him on the album’s many country-leaning tracks.
“I’ve been singing with men most of my life,” Henley, 68, said in his distinctive warm, smoky voice, talking with the light East Texas drawl he acquired growing up in Linden — in Cass County.
It isn’t often that Henley takes a break from his primary gig with the Eagles, so working with the likes of Parton and Krauss gave him the opportunity to make music with artists other than his longtime bandmates Glenn Frey, Joe Walsh and Timothy B. Schmit. Henley’s album also boasts a few noteworthy male vocal contributions by no less than Mick Jagger, Merle Haggard, Vince Gill and Jamey Johnson.
On a recent afternoon in a cavernous Culver City rehearsal studio, Henley and several bandmates were gearing up for a string of events, including a solo tour that reaches the Forum in Inglewood on Oct. 9. Henley took time out from the rehearsals to discuss the balancing act of a musician in one of the most popular and influential bands of the last half century, with whom he handled lead vocals on such iconic hits as “Hotel California,” “One of These Nights,” “Best of My Love” and “Desperado.”
For the Record
Sept. 18, 1:50 p.m.: An earlier version of this article said Don Henley’s concert at the Forum in Inglewood will be held Oct. 7. It is scheduled for Oct. 9.
“I really do think it’s the best of both worlds,” Henley said while acknowledging a sense of restlessness during the run-up to Friday’s release of “Cass County,” an album he completed more than a year ago.
As often is the case when a member of a prominent band initiates a solo project, Henley’s album had to go on the back burner while the Eagles finished touring — this time playing the latest round of shows on its History of the Eagles tour, which has been a box-office blockbuster.
The delay, he said, may turn out to be a blessing, because the album is being released by Capitol Nashville, part of the recently re-energized Capitol Music Group.
“His voice means so much to so many Americans, and I think he has eruditely said this is the record he’s always wanted to make,” said Steve Barnett, chief executive of the Capitol Music Group, who championed releasing Sam Smith’s debut album in the States and was one of the big cheerleaders for Beck’s “Morning Phase,” which earlier this year won the Grammy for album of the year.
“It is more difficult for an iconic artist to penetrate the clutter than ever before. But if we can get people to listen and to see the content, I think this record has a real opportunity to do really, really well.”
Henley himself isn’t sure what sway his new music will have with young fans who’ve been lapping up party-minded country music from Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean and bro-country’s other Young Turks.
“I hope younger people will enjoy it,” Henley said, “but it’s an album for grown-ups. It’s not so much about Cass County; it’s more about interior landscapes than it is about exterior landscapes.”
As a kid growing up in small-town Texas, Henley was captivated by the greener grass he was convinced grew beyond the fences of Linden, and he only too eagerly accepted an invitation from pop-country singer Kenny Rogers to bring his regionally successful band Shiloh to Los Angeles to record in the early 1970s.
Nothing much happened for Shiloh, but once here, Henley fell in with the Southland’s fertile country-rock community, and he was one of the musicians tapped by Linda Ronstadt to sing and play backup when her post-Stone Poneys solo career started to take off. Alongside new musical collaborators Frey, Bernie Leadon and Randy Meisner, the still-unchristened Eagles played its first gig supporting Ronstadt at a week of bookings she took at Disneyland in Anaheim in 1971.
Nearly half a century later, he’s come to see the virtues — not just the vices — of his hometown, which he touches on in the new album. Many of the songs are informed by his role as an active preservationist in Cass County, having helped with the recent $7-million restoration of the historic Cass County Courthouse, in addition to half a dozen vintage structures he has purchased and is working to restore in Linden.
Henley co-wrote 11 of the 16 songs on the deluxe edition of “Cass County” (as usual, Target will have an expanded version with 18 songs). Most are collaborations with Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers’ former drummer Stan Lynch, who also teamed with Henley on the songwriting and production of his 2000 solo album, “Inside Job,” which skewed more to classic rock, funk and R&B.
Many of the songs from “Cass County” wouldn’t sound out of place on country radio stations, but the sense of purpose Henley brings to them goes well beyond the feel-good party anthems that have dominated the genre in recent years.
That’s a trend not lost on Henley, whose music with the Eagles set the template for so much of what subsequently came out of Nashville in the ‘80s, ‘90s and 2000s.
“What passes for country music,” he said, “it’s formulaic. Where’s the insight? Where’s the reflection? Where’s the depth?”
Not surprisingly, the country music Henley favors harks back to revered singers and songwriters such as Hank Williams, Haggard and the Louvin Brothers.
From a songwriting standpoint, solo Henley isn’t far removed from Eagles Henley, exploring the nuances of lives that play out in a small town (“Waiting Tables”), dreams thwarted by forces beyond one’s control (“Praying for Rain”) and offering a pointed twist on the good-ol'-days nostalgia that’s so popular in country of late (“Take a Picture of This”).
In the latter, it’s not hard to envision the message being directed, at least partially, toward some of his mates in a band with such a notorious history of infighting that the Eagles’ 1994 reunion was named the Hell Freezes Over tour, after Henley’s famous remark upon the group’s 1980 breakup that it would get back together again “when hell freezes over”:
There’s no one here to talk to
No reason to remain
When you spend all your time
Living in the past with all those pictures that you took
Here’s one more for the book
Take a picture of this
This is me leaving
But his commitment to the Eagles hasn’t been the only factor in the long gap between solo projects.
“I have three teenagers at home — there’s one of them,” he said, gesturing toward his daughter, Annabel, who is along with her father on the road to tend to his hair and makeup. “Being their father is extremely important to me. I’ve already been gone more than I’d like to be gone. So when I’m home, I try to stay engaged. And that took priority. That took a lot of time, and that was time well spent. I wanted to do that.
“So this album happened in the — what’s the word? — in the interstices. Which doesn’t mean it was something I approached haphazardly or casually, without serious intent,” said one of the few rock stars who can casually, but correctly, drop a word like “interstices” into a sentence. “But I had to balance it with my parental duties and my obligations to the Eagles. And that’s really why it took so long.”
In addition to the album’s original material, Henley has recorded versions of the Louvin Brothers’ country classic of lost love, “When I Stop Dreaming,” as a duet with Parton; Billy Sherill’s heartbreaking ballad “Too Far Gone,” with Krauss and Johnson; and singer-songwriter Jesse Winchester’s aching ballad “The Brand New Tennessee Waltz.”
Henley had a solid solo career building in the 1980s following the dissolution of the Eagles, with 1982’s “I Can’t Stand Still” reaching No. 24 on Billboard’s album chart, 1984’s “Building the Perfect Beast” ascending to No. 13 and 1989’s “The End of the Innocence” peaking at No. 8, and the title tune reaching the same spot on the singles chart.
He’d already scored several other hit singles: “Dirty Laundry,” “The Boys of Summer” and “All She Wants to Do Is Dance,” as well as his duet with Stevie Nicks, “Leather and Lace.”
But following the unexpected 1994 reunion, the Eagles became big — make that massive — business at the box office, and all the members’ other interests took a back seat to keeping the group’s legacy alive in concert.
Now, however, Henley is relishing a bit of time away from the Eagles to explore the life he left behind.
“When you get to a certain point in life, you tend to look back and take stock,” he said softly. “You come full circle, so to speak.”
For one, he’s come to appreciate things about Linden he didn’t know, or understand, as a kid.
“It was a cultural crossroads,” he said, “very rich in musical history. [Blues guitarist and singer] T-Bone Walker was born there, and Scott Joplin, the father of ragtime, was born there. Huddie Ledbetter — Lead Belly — was born just a few miles down the road….
“I have deep roots and connections there, I still have friends there and my career started there. Like a lot of little towns across America, my town is struggling. And the reasons for that are myriad. But we’re working on it. … They’re so excited about this album — they’re putting up signs, billboards, along the highway. Those people down there need hope.”