Don Henley on ‘Sloppy’ Songwriting, National Values and Cultural Decay
Community has always been important to Don Henley. Whether fighting for the rights of artists and songwriters, launching the Walden Woods Project to protect the land and legacy of Henry David Thoreau or soldiering on with his fractious musical brethren the Eagles, community has long been a cornerstone of his life and art and it provides the foundation for his new album Cass County.
Named for the northeast Texas area where Henley grew up in the small town of Linden, Cass County is the iconic musician’s first solo album in 15 years and features an impressive array of guests, including Dolly Parton, Merle Haggard, Mick Jagger, Miranda Lambert, Lucinda Williams, Martina McBride, Jamey Johnson, Vince Gill and Alison Krauss. Co-produced with his longtime friend Stan Lynch, former drummer with Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, the deluxe collection features 16 songs, including a cover of the Billy Sherrill-penned classic “Too Far Gone” and his rendition of Jesse Lee Kincaid’s “She Sang Hymns Out of Tune.” There are also several new originals co-written with Lynch, including “Take a Picture of This,” an exploration of a failing relationship that sounds like an instant Henley classic.
“Rock & roll has always been associated with rebellion, but I think rock & roll, country music and all kinds of music have always had a role to play in terms of creating community,” Henley tells Rolling Stone Country. “Music has more to do with creating community than it does rebellion. It’s one of our greatest exports. It crosses political, ethnical and religious boundaries and it brings people together, so that’s why I think it’s more important than ever that we focus more on the quality of the music we’re making in this country and the message that we’re sending to the rest of the world.
“It’s incumbent on us to export something that has some quality to it, that reflects our culture in ways that are positive and meaningful,” he continues. “In order to do that in country music, we have to go back to the country because this music originated with people who lived in rural America and lived authentic lives. That’s why I picked Dolly and Merle [to sing on the album]. They are authentic people who come from rural America.”
With Cass County, Henley is looking to spotlight the Texas community he was raised in and pay homage to the music that shaped his youth. For the past several years, he’s been making frequent visits to his hometown, getting reacquainted with everything from the people to to the architecture. Most of the photo shoot was done in Linden, with the album’s cover shot taken in front of the town’s old fire station.
“It was a good place to grow up, but most kids in my generation didn’t want to stay there,” says Henley. “They wanted to go out into the wider world.”
Long before Henley left Texas to seek musical fame and fortune in California, he spent a lot of time soaking up the Great American Songbook courtesy of his parents and grandparents, who listened to the songs of Stephen Foster, Big Band stars like Glenn Miller, Guy Lombardo and the Dorsey brothers and, of course, country music. He’d often accompany his father to work at an auto-parts store in nearby Dangerfield, Texas, listening to Shreveport country station, KWKH, on the drive.
KWKH also broadcast the Louisiana Hayride, a barn dance show like the Grand Ole Opry. “It was a seminal influence on country music and rockabilly because they would take a chance on people, the folks that wouldn’t get accepted at the Opry,” Henley says. “If you had a bad reputation or the music didn’t fit in, they wouldn’t take you at the Opry. The Opry rejected Hank Williams and they rejected Elvis Presley, so the two of them ended up down in Shreveport on the Louisiana Hayride. . . The Hayride also supported other artists like Johnny Cash, George Jones, Kitty Wells, Slim Whitman, Webb Pierce. . . The list goes on and on.”
Henley is proud of the Texas region he calls home and the music that resonated throughout. “It spawned Huddie Ledbetter, known as Lead Belly,” Henley says. “I visit his grave once in a while. He’s buried in the middle of nowhere, in a little churchyard cemetery on the north shore of Caddo Lake between Marshall, Texas, and Shreveport, [Louisiana] kind of near the town of Waskom [Texas]. I go there to pick up the vibe.
“The older I get I try to soak up as much of the local culture as I can,” he continues. “Cass County was the birth place of T-Bone Walker, who is to the blues what Bob Dylan was to folk music, and also Scott Joplin, the father of Ragtime, was born in my hometown. The first black female aviator was born in my hometown. Nat Stuckey was from Cass County. It’s been fun and interesting for me to put all these pieces of the puzzle together about the musical culture of where I come from. It’s richer than I thought it was.”
Henley left his Texas roots in 1970 and moved to California where fellow Texan Kenny Rogers produced an album on his early band, Shiloh. The years since have been well documented. He met Glenn Frey when they were members of Linda Ronstadt’s back up band and the two singer-songwriters started their own band, the Eagles.
“[There is] a lot of bad songwriting going on, really sloppy stuff. Not that country music is supposed to be an intellectual exercise, but it could be better than it is.”
Throughout the years, Rogers and Henley have always remained friends and Rogers’ appreciation for Henley’s talent remains undimmed. “Don has one of those versatile voices, so everything he does he’s gonna do well. He’s a gifted performer,” Rogers enthuses. “I remember once he got in the studio in a little cubicle and he took about 30 minutes of screaming to get his voice opened up. If I do that much screaming, I can’t walk! But he did that, in order to get his voice up to where he wanted it, and he sounded great.”
Recording Cass County was a labor of love for Henley that took several years, as he would pop in and out of Nashville to record during breaks in the Eagles’ busy tour schedule. He also recorded in Dallas, where he now lives with his wife and three teenage children. “This album is not all that autobiographical, it’s more about a feeling,” he says. “It’s more about an atmosphere and the music that influenced me, which is why I did some of those cover tunes like ‘When I Stop Dreaming’ with Dolly Parton, some of the tunes that I love from back then. Then I wrote some stuff like the song for me and Merle Haggard to sing, ‘The Cost Of Living.’ I’m a big Merle Haggard fan. He and George Jones and Buck Owens were influences for me.”
Recording with Haggard was a bucket list moment for Henley. “Like Dolly Parton, Merle Haggard has a voice that represents America to me,” Henley says. “It represents an authentic life. I know Merle was in trouble when he was younger. He’s been through a lot, and you can hear all that in that voice. I’m drawn to voices like that. Same thing with George Jones, all the troubles he had, there’s an authenticity to that that you hear in that voice. The nearest thing we’ve got to that is Jamey Johnson, which is why I put him on my album. I said, ‘Well, if I can’t have George, bless his heart he’s gone, I’ll get Jamey Johnson because he’s the nearest thing.’”
Henley recruited Martina McBride for the single “That Old Flame” and invited Trisha Yearwood to sing on “Words Can Break Your Heart” and “Praying for Rain.” The latter also features harmonies by Molly Felder, Gill, Krauss and Ashley Monroe, whom Henley praises as the next Parton.
On a cover of Tift Merritt’s “Bramble Rose,” Henley is joined by Jagger and Lambert. “The tone of her voice is so beautiful and it adds such a warmth and personal quality to that song,” Henley says of Lambert, who also hails from East Texas. “Then Mr. Jagger, he’s always been very kind and generous to me. I’m a big fan of his. I think he’s very underrated as a lyricist. You never hear anybody talk about that. It’s always more about the persona and the whole Stones presence. That’s him playing harmonica on [‘Bramble Rose’]. That was his idea.”
Gill joins Henley on “No, Thank You,” singing harmony and playing electric guitar. “Vince just killed it. He couldn’t sing a bad note. He’s a big Don Rich fan, so he was the perfect guy to sing that part,” Henley says of paying homage to Buck Owens’ legendary sideman.
Henley also has deep appreciation for Lynch. “He’s like a little brother that I never had,” he says with a smile. “You can’t write a song with just anybody. You have to feel comfortable, safe and secure. We have these great talks about life. . . He’s done his homework in this town. He’s become acquainted with who the right people to work with are, who is the right musician for that song.”
Cass County is being dubbed Henley’s “country album,” and he’s OK with that. “If you had to put a label on it, it’s more country than anything else, some of it can fall into the category of Americana,” he says. “‘Take a Picture of This’ falls into the stuff I’ve done previously, and I don’t know what category that is.”
When asked where he sees himself fitting into today’s country format, he responds, “I don’t recognize country music anymore. The bar is not very high right now. I’m not naming any names. I’m just saying the bar isn’t very high right now. [There is] a lot of bad songwriting going on, really sloppy stuff. Not that country music is supposed to be an intellectual exercise, but it could be better than it is. It could have more meat to it than it has currently got.”
Henley acknowledges there are good songs being recorded in Nashville, but laments those songs just aren’t getting heard. Still, he reasons that it’s a cycle, and one that’s been going on a long time. “Music will get really slick and poppy for a while and then there will be an improvement back to pure country or neo-traditional country like Randy Travis. . . He ushered in one of those neo-traditional eras back in the late Eighties and I’m hoping that’s about to happen again,” says Henley. “I’d like to see a good backlash happen again. Radio has to stop pandering to demographics.”
Though he’s well-known for delivering songs with pointed social commentary, he says that isn’t his intent on Cass County. “It’s songs about the circular nature of life and how life is one big circle with a lot of smaller circles inside of it,” says the 68-year-old. “I’m at an age now where I’m thinking about mortality, what kind of world my kids are going to inherit when they grow up, and how I can prepare them to be resilient of that in the face of that because, let’s face it, the world has gone batshit crazy.”
Henley has a home outside Dallas, but his retreat is a 200-acre farm outside Linden. “Every time I go back there, I have a lot of mixed emotions. I see the things that I love about the place, but I also see the things that drove me away from it. So it’s an ongoing conundrum. It’s a paradox. I’m both attracted and repelled by it. I think small towns are a microcosm for America. That’s how I feel about my country. I love my country. I’m loyal to my country. I want to help my country, but my country also really disappoints me and makes me angry and frustrated sometimes.
“The politics in this country are really messed up right now,” he continues. “It’s just ridiculous, the things we focus on, how shallow our culture has become, how you can get famous now for not really accomplishing anything. Fame, at one time, was associated with accomplishment, but in this day and age fame and notoriety have become confused. A lot of people who we call famous, should not be famous. They should be notorious because if you can build a multi-million-dollar empire just by taking your clothes off and going on the Internet, there’s something very wrong with our values.
“The things we prioritize and the things we worship are upside down. That really worries me and then there’s politics where none of the guys in Washington can seem to reach across the aisle and find a consensus. We can’t agree to disagree and move forward. It’s become very counter-productive and destructive, so I’m really worried about American culture, and American society and politics. I’m worried about the future of my children, what kind of a country they are going to grow up in because I’ve never seen a country this divided since the Civil War. It’s not like we’re all in this together anymore. It’s every man for himself. I explained to somebody the other day, they asked, ‘Why do you think the Eagles survived so long as a group?’ And I said it’s because regardless of how much egomania any of us might have and regardless of all the talk about our infighting and struggling, we managed to subjugate our egos enough to keep that group together and to keep going because we realized a thing that all nations, cultures, and societies must realize — the survival of the individual depends on the survival of the whole. If you can’t figure out a way to come together and go forward as a group or nation, or as a whole community, then you are doomed.”
The world has changed dramatically since Henley’s boyhood in Cass County, and he misses those simpler times when he could lay in his father’s cornfield, look up at the sky and dream about the future. “I’m a believer in what my friends call the ‘agrarian myth,’” he muses. “I wish a lot of people lived and worked on farms because I think we were better off as people. I think there were values imparted to children that are missing as we become a more urbanized society. Rural life is suffering and working-class people are suffering. Farms are disappearing right and left and you can hear it in the music. Our distance from the corn and cotton field and the pulpit is reflected in the music, and it’s a growing distance.”
Henley will be sharing music from Cass County during a solo tour that kicks off October 3rd in Phoenix and continues through mid-November. What can fans expect? “I can tell them they aren’t going to hear any Eagles songs. We’ve done that,” says Henley of the two-year world tour the Eagles completed in July. “I’m going to do several [songs from Cass County]. We’re just going to be ready for anything. This band is very adaptable and if we want to make a change on the spur of the moment, they can do it. We can change directions at any minute.”
Even with his concerns over politics, society’s values and the future of intellectual property, Don Henley is upbeat and fairly content these days. It’s a sentiment he deliberately conveys in “Where I Am Now,” the last track on Cass County, in which he sings:
I took it hard when I found out
That life just isn’t fair
I used to bellyache and moan
But now I just don’t care
I’m makin’ one last victory lap, and then I’ll take a bow
Because I like where I am now
“I wanted to end the album on a hopeful note,” he says “I do like where I am now. I feel very comfortable in my own skin. I love my life, my family. Things are good. The Eagles have gone on longer than anybody could have ever imagined and it’s all good. I’m thankful that I survived the Seventies because God knows we did everything to self-destruct and a lot of my friends didn’t make it through . . . I’m so grateful that I have my health. It’s a miracle.”