Review: Don Henley — Cass County

3.5 OUT OF 5 NUTS!

donhenley-casscountyWay back in 1970, East Texas boy Don Henley packed up his pickup truck and headed for the bright lights of Southern California, with country music in his heart and rock & roll on his mind. He and his band Shiloh landed in L.A. under the wing of fellow Texan Kenny Rogers, and made an album proving you can take the boy out of the country, but not vice versa.

Of course, Henley soon met Glenn Frey, and as the Eagles they would come to personify “country rock”. But they would eventually leave all that country innocence behind for the pink champagne and mirrored ceiling trappings of Rock Mega-Stardom.

The bloated, latter-day Eagles earn plenty of scorn from some Rock fans, but I think their country rock days ought to earn more of a benefit of the doubt. Country music – in its purest form, not the Frankenstein that is Modern Country – is a fundamental root of Rock music. And all Rock fans ought to be respectful of the roots of Rock in their purest forms – blues, rhythm & blues, and country.

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There is something pure and true about a great story being sung with great voices and simple rhythms and chords on acoustic instruments, and there always will be.

Which brings me to Don Henley’s new album Cass County. Fifteen years after his last solo album, Henley’s gone full circle, making the same music he did 45 years ago when he first arrived in the Hotel California, and the results are pretty good.

The album works best on the simple ballads. Henley is blessed with one of the best voices in Rock history, and its honey-and-grits persuasion is as strong as ever. The album opens with a standout track “Bramble Rose”, written by alt-country princess Tift Merritt. Henley harmonizes with Miranda Lambert, and then three minutes in Mick Jagger pops in for a verse and the three-point harmony ending. It’s fantastic.

There are lots of celebrity cameos here, more often than not adding some complementary flavors to the mix, including Merle Haggard, Alison Krauss, and Dolly Parton. Lucinda Williams adds a subtle harmony to another great song “Train In The Distance”, a powerful reflection on changing perceptions over time.

Henley tries hard to keep it real, but eventually some of the songs inevitably veer into cliché. The uptempo honky-tonk stuff, and the hurtin’ stuff about hard times and waitin’ tables, wear a little thin after a while, and sound a little less than genuine. But nobody ever accused Henley of being a poet for his generation.

One of his most interesting and revealing lyrics, though, is in the song “Younger Man”, an old guy’s take on May-December romance:

I knew the day I met you

It was never gonna last

You’re an angel from the future

I’m an old devil from the past

If you’re lookin’ for believers

In faith and hope and charity

Then you’re lookin’ for a younger man,

Not me.

Well that’s one thing that’s surely changed over 45 years. Henley doesn’t believe in faith and hope and charity anymore. That’s too bad. Maybe he overdid it on the pink champagne and mirrored ceilings.

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