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. They include the Louvin Brothers' 1955 hit "When I Stop Dreaming," Jesse Winchester's rustic 1970 jewel "The Brand New Tennessee Waltz," and the psychedelic-prairie waltz "She Sang Hymns Out of Tune," originally a 1966 single by Jesse Lee Kincaid.
A whole record of that rewind would have been an instructive pleasure. Instead, Henley has made an album of quietly defiant pure-country modernism. Written and produced with Stan Lynch, the original drummer in Tom Petty's Heartbreakers, Cass County is meticulously crafted, sharply written and absolutely free of neo-country additives like reheated Seventies-rock bombast and Twitter-verse vernacular. The single mother slinging hash in "Waiting Tables," the farmer staring at the sky in "Praying for Rain" and the overdue divorce at the center of "Take a Picture of This" are all framed by a rich, vintage minimum of strumming, steel-guitar tears and straightforward harmonies. "It's the oldest form of suicide," Henley warns in the saloon blues "Too Much Pride," the kind of morality lesson you'd expect on an Eagles LP — except Henley cuts it more like the seasoned hardass romanticism of Merle Haggard.
Haggard actually shows up on this album, taking a verse in "The Cost of Living" with brawny authority. But everything in the music serves the sting and solace in the tales. That goes for Henley's parade of celebrity guests too. Many — like Alison Krauss, Trisha Yearwood and Lucinda Williams — serve in the backing chorales. Those who get a shot up front keep it short and poised. When Mick Jagger, a rare outright rocker here, takes a verse after Miranda Lambert in the cover of Tift Merritt's "Bramble Rose," it is with a striking restraint miles from his hayseed exaggeration in the Rolling Stones' "Far Away Eyes." A bonus: the plaintive breeze of his harmonica work.
It's worth remembering that the Eagles were really a singer-songwriters' band with country flair. Thus the real stars on Cass County are Henley's finely etched walking wounded in songs like "That Old Flame" and "Words Can Break Your Heart," and his aged-like-whiskey tenor, which confronts and comforts with equal measure, sometimes in the same scene. Henley evokes his own wild days, after he left Texas, in the hard twang and speed of "Where I Am Now": "I've done some foolish things/And I've been downright stupid." But, he contends, "I made it through somehow/And I like where I am now." Which, on this album, is home.