Standing in a lounge in Nashville’s Hermitage Hotel, Don Henley is in desperate need of a bottle opener. He’s holding a glass bottle of water, but, alas, the cap isn’t a twist-off. “You have an opener?” he asks me. I don’t, but I try the old trick of hammering the cap off using the edge of a table. After a few loud, really loud, pounds, it finally pops off. Henley’s publicist pokes his head in the room, looking concerned. “Don’t worry,” Henley says. “We haven’t come to blows.”
Henley is known for his testy streak, but today he seems relaxed, maybe a bit tired, though eager to chat about his new solo album—his first in fifteen years—Cass County. It’s been referred to as Henley’s country record, but that does a disservice to the trove of country-inflected megahits Henley helped pen for the Eagles during their thirty-plus years together. Rather, Cass County is Henley’s Texas record, a return to his roots with Henley invoking memories from his formative years in Linden, his hometown in East Texas. As a kid, he would listen to the radio show Louisiana Hayride, a bad-boy version of the Grand Ole Opry. Broadcast from KWKH in nearby Shreveport, the show gave Elvis and Hank Williams their early breaks.
Drawing inspiration from the area he calls “where the Deep South meets the Old West,” Henley wrote some of the material for the album during several two-and-a-half-hour drives to Linden from where he now lives, in Dallas. Sometimes he would pull over to dictate lyrics into a recorder, other times he would just keep repeating a line until he got out of the car. “I usually start with a title and maybe a chorus,” he says. “The hardest part is the connective tissue. Eventually all the blanks get filled in. It’s still a mysterious process to me.”
Henley actually began working on Cass County in 2010, but due to touring obligations with the Eagles, he could devote himself to it only in spurts. The Eagles wrapped up their latest road stint in July, and while Henley won’t confirm that the band is finished, he says he’s tired of “being a jukebox.” Henley cowrote many of the songs with his longtime collaborator Stan Lynch (the ex-drummer for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers), who helped polish the music into a pristine-sounding collection of ballads and a few honky-tonk numbers. During sessions in Dallas, Henley says, “Stan and I would just brainstorm—pace the floor, drinking coffee.”
If the songwriting process was deliberate, choosing the special guests was even more so. The album features a dream team of talent: Dolly Parton, Merle Haggard, Vince Gill, Alison Krauss, and Lucinda Williams all make appearances, while Martina McBride sings on one of the album highlights, “That Old Flame,” a driving rocker that spins the tale of a past lover who unexpectedly reappears. Mick Jagger and Miranda Lambert join Henley on a gorgeous, weepy version of “Bramble Rose,” a track originally written by another Texas-born musician, Tift Merritt. Jagger not only sings but also plays harmonica. “The song reminds me of ‘Wild Horses,’ the country period when the Stones were hanging out with Gram Parsons,” Henley says. “Everyone was chosen for how they sing, not just what the lyrics were. I’m flabbergasted they all said yes.”
“‘Bramble Rose’ has a timeless feel, and Don is an artist who has a deep understanding of sound and melody,” says Lambert. “It was the perfect choice for our collaboration.”
For someone who has sold a gazillion records and written some of the most seminal songs in the modern music canon, Henley is unexpectedly self-deprecating when it comes to his solo work. He wonders if anyone will care what a now sixty-eight-year-old will have to say, given our youth-obsessed culture, and he’s bothered by the ageism that’s rife within the music industry.
Dude, I tell him, you’re Don freaking Henley. “It doesn’t matter,” he says, his voice rising. “Merle Haggard is Merle freaking Haggard, George Jones is George freaking Jones, but they’re still relegated to the heritage channel on the radio. That ain’t right.” Some of us older folks have wisdom to impart, he continues. “There aren’t any trucks or beer on this album. This is an album for grown-ups, for people that have done some living.”