Don Henley has been quietly coming to Nashville for the last five years, slipping in and out of recording studios. Now he's ready for everyone to know that Cass County, his first solo album in 15 years, is ready for release.
In a candid, comical exchange with Nashville journalist Beverly Keel at an intimate gathering a few miles from the swelling crowds of CMA Music Festival, Henley previewed the project, which will be released on Capitol Records. (An official release date has not yet been set.)
Wrapping up the half-hour exchange, Henley was asked what he'd like people to know about the album. After a beat, he deadpanned, "That it's for sale."
The moment of levity was a surprise to those who think of Henley with only a sour disposition. There was still a little bit of grumbling — he groaned into the microphone when asked about the long gap between albums — but for the most part, the Eagles icon appeared to be in good spirits.
"It's going to be interesting to see what happens with this record. I have no idea what's going to happen because the musical landscape now is so different," he observed. "You know, the bar is pretty low."
After some uncomfortable laughter from the industry crowd, Henley dryly quipped, "There, I said it." And then the room burst into applause.
"The great majority [of recording] was done right here in Nashville and I can truthfully say that I enjoyed making this record more than any record I've made in my career. And a lot of the reason is because of the people who participated," he told the audience. "There's some amazing musicians here and the best thing about it is, most of them are funny. So it was a real pleasure."
Henley previewed eight tracks from Cass County, and in that abbreviated list, the all-star guests included Merle Haggard, Mick Jagger, Alison Krauss, Miranda Lambert, Martina McBride, Ashley Monroe, Dolly Parton, Lucinda Williams and Trisha Yearwood.
"I woke up the other day and I said, 'Oh my God. I really screwed up because when I play live, these people aren't going to show up,'" Henley said with a laugh. "I chose people that I respect musically. People whose work I respect, whose voices I like, who are all great, authentic singers who can really sing when called upon to sing. Some of them are friends of mine and some of them I had never met before. I was flattered and flabbergasted when all of them said, 'Yeah.'"
Henley wrote a bulk of the new material with longtime collaborator Stan Lynch, the original drummer behind Tom Petty in the Heartbreakers. Lynch was also in attendance.
"He and I both have an abiding appreciation for rock & roll and country music, and the history of it. I think that's what's missing from a lot of records today," Henley stated. "They haven't gone to school on the older stuff, and gone back to the early days of the genre. So we do that — we talk about records and production and players. You've got to live and breathe this stuff. It's not a hobby. It's a calling. It's something that we love doing."
Henley seemed most at ease when reminiscing about growing up in Linden, Texas, in the northeast corner of the state near Arkansas and Louisiana. He also noted that he did a photo shoot for the project at his grandmother's old house, which he's kept in the family for years.
"Even though it was boring as hell sometimes, it was a good place to grow up. You could go outside and stay outside at night without being abducted, you know," he said. Of all the Cass County songs previewed, the most autobiographical was "Train in the Distance," about lying in bed at his grandmother's house and dreaming of a different life. The song features haunting harmony vocals from Lucinda Williams.
"This is a natural progression. It's not me trying to do the 'Don Henley country album'"
Later, asked for his thoughts about the Eagles’ musical influence on current country artists, Henley essentially deflected the question.
"Depends on who it is," he said. "To be perfectly honest, I think we've had some good influence and some bad influence."
In contrast to the country radio landscape, women are in abundance on Cass County. Lambert lends her distinct vocal to "Bramble Rose," a wistful song written by Tift Merritt, which also features the Rolling Stones' Jagger on vocals and harmonica. On "That Old Flame," McBride comes from a familiar place of empowerment and strength. Yearwood offers gorgeous harmony on "Words Can Break Your Heart," a bittersweet song about starting over after a devastating fight. Meanwhile, Parton almost steals the show on "When I Stop Dreaming," a Louvin Brothers classic with a sterling treatment that would make the Grand Ole Opry proud.
Throughout the set, a steel guitar adds elegance to the project. Although Henley, who revealed he'll tour behind the album, is quick to dismiss any notion of genre, many listeners would embrace it as a country album.
"I'm associated with California a lot because of that other band that I play in, but I really and truly was born and raised in Cass County, Texas. I'm a Southerner and a Texan," he said. "I have ancestors in Tennessee, Mississippi and Georgia. So this is a natural progression for me. It's not me trying to do the 'Don Henley country album.' It's who I am and where I come from."