"I was delighted at the energy and grittiness of the live tracks," Eagles singer-drummer Don Henley says of the previously unissued concert recordings – from October 1976 at the Forum in Los Angeles – added to the new 40th-anniversary reissue of the band's fifth studio album and biggest seller, Hotel California. "We're a year late, technically speaking," Henley admits, noting the LP's original release in December 1976. "But we had enough foresight to record those shows. I was surprised that we were doing songs from the album before it even came out. That was pretty ballsy."
Henley is speaking the day after a milestone in Eagles' touring life: their October 29th debut performance at Nashville's country-radio landmark, the Grand Ole Opry, partly broadcast live by Sirius XM. That show also marked the end of the band's first tour since the 2016 death of Henley's co-founder, singer-guitarist Glenn Frey. "We're taking it one step at a time," Henley says of the reborn lineup with country star Vince Gill and Frey's 23-year-old son Deacon on guitars and vocals. "But it isn't so much about us as it is the songs. That's what people come to hear."
It's hard to believe last night was Eagles' Opry debut. "Lyin' Eyes" was a Top 10 country hit in 1975.
As seasoned as we are in stadiums and arenas, suddenly we're down to an intimate 4,000-seat venue where people are actually listening. There are planks they cut out of the stage at the Ryman Auditorium [the Opry's original home) and inserted into the stage at Opryland. We all took turns standing on it to see if anything would rub off.
Did you listen to the Grand Ole Opry radio show as a kid, growing up in Texas?
I don't think we heard it on the radio. We watched it sometimes after it became a television show. What we had was what we called the country cousin of the Opry, which was The Louisiana Hayride out of Shreveport, Louisiana. Guys like Johnny Cash and George Jones – they went down to Shreveport. That's where Elvis Presley made his first live broadcast in 1954.
What was the impact on you musically? You took the turn to rock but listening to that music on The Louisiana Hayride clearly left a mark which can be heard on the first Eagles records.
I would listen to the Hayride with my dad when I would go to work with him in the summertime. It was a 30-minute drive each way, and he would turn that program on. In the Sixties, rock & roll became a cultural force, and country music was looked down on as square. Then Gram Parsons made it OK again. He invented the genre of long-haired country music when George Jones still had a flat-top haircut. That said to me, "It's alright to blend these genres now. It reflects the old and new." It seemed like something that I'd been looking for the whole time.
During last night's show, Gill dedicated "New Kid in Town" to Deacon. In fact, with Gill, there are two new kids in your band.
It was a no-brainer for us to get Vince. Nobody else, other than Deacon, was even discussed. Glenn played golf with him. And Vince was in a band called Pure Prairie League. They did a style of music similar to ours – country-influenced pop. He fit like a glove. And his personality is great. He's just glad to be there. He's probably the happiest guy onstage.
It's interesting to hear Gill sing tunes associated with Glenn. Gill has a lighter tone in his voice.
He has struck a nice balance between honoring what Glenn did, then putting his own little spin on it. In the beginning, he was trying to sing the songs exactly as Glenn sang them in phrasing and emphasis. But over the past few shows, he's put his own twist and interpretation on the songs. It makes it more authentic to him.
Deacon, in turn, had to grow up fast in his father's shoes.
It's extraordinary what that young man has done. I saw him sing "Peaceful Easy Feeling" at his father's memorial service. As difficult as that might have been, he was so brave and composed. I'm sure, on the inside, he was churning. After a few months went by, I thought, "Why not see if he would like to be in the band?"
Did you ever question whether it was right to continue without Glenn?
Yes, I did. The only way it felt justified to me was to have family blood in the band. And I have to hand it to Deacon. We rehearsed for a couple of months. And his first gig with us was at Dodger Stadium [at the Classic West festival on July 15th]. He had done some gigs with his father – private parties, clubs, in front of maybe 200 people. To go from that to 55,000 people is extraordinary. I don't know many people who could have done that without freaking out.
Did you have any advice for him before going onstage that day?
[Guitarist] Joe Walsh and I told him not to think about it too much [laughs] – just concentrate on the job. It's a double-edged sword for Deacon. He is honored to be carrying on his dad's legacy. On the other hand, it reminds him poignantly of his dad, when he is sitting in dressing rooms where his dad sat, when he's onstage where his dad was. There is the wonderful part of it and the sadness that goes with it.
I've told him that he doesn't need to feel obligated to do this indefinitely, that he doesn't have to stand in his father's shadow. If he wants to start his own band and write his own music, he should do that. He can do this as long as we all agree that we want to do it. He may want to carve out his own future, and that's just fine.
What is it like to play some of those Seventies hits – with that sardonic eye on consumerism and self-absorption – in the age of Trump? Most of this tour ran through the heart of his base: North Carolina, Georgia, Kentucky, Michigan.
Which is why we don't speak about politics onstage. We let the music do the talking. People have their own interpretations of these songs. They may connect them to current events. A lot of people connect them to the past. And the past is always bathed in a golden light. It always looks better than it really was. I said something onstage last night: "This song is from 1974. You thought things were crazy then." But that's as far as I was gonna go. People can infer from that what they want.
We'd been doing "The Last Resort" [from Hotel California] in the set. It goes over like gangbusters in some parts of the country, because it really is a song about manifest destiny. But we pick and choose where to do it. We have too many ballads in the set anyway.
The reissue of Hotel California is the first time you have given an Eagles album the bonus-track treatment. Why did you pick that album instead of starting at the beginning, with your 1972 debut album, Eagles?
We picked it because it had the most impact of our studio albums. The song itself has become one of those songs like "Stairway to Heaven" [laughs]. The album came out in December 1976. But it didn't really make an impact on the radio until February of '77. I'm so thrilled we had the foresight to record those things at the Forum. I didn't even realize that we had done that – playing songs from Hotel California before it was out. We were doing things that nobody had heard on the radio yet.
How did they go over?
[Laughs] I guess they went over OK. The live tracks were tighter than I remember them being. I thought we were all over the place. But it was pretty well played.
Did you have a sense, during the sessions for Hotel California, that you had turned an important corner as a writing and recording band – and in your commercial appeal?
We realized we had taken another step in the evolution of the band, as songwriters and players, in the studio. We were fully aware that we were taking a leap forward. We had [guitarist] Don Felder in the band, and that was part of the edge.
You had that double-lead-guitar action with Felder and Walsh, who had just joined. Their pinpoint-harmony soloing in "Hotel California" speaks to your perfectionist streak as a band – that a guitar solo is not just about showing off. It has to have a melodic and narrative arc.
Rather than perfectionism, I like to refer to it as craftsmanship. Songwriting and recording are an art, but they are also a craft. Don and Joe sat down and worked on those solos for days. Then [producer] Bill Szymczyk and I did some editing on those solos. Then they relearned the parts after we edited them together.
They'll be pissed at me for saying this [laughs], but that wasn't them just sitting down and spontaneously playing it in one take. That was weeks of work to get there. I'm not taking anything away. I have to give them props. They wrote those solos, worked over those harmony parts for days, then played them over and over again.
Is there anything else in the vaults worthy of future deluxe reissues? The Long Run was supposed to be a double album.
We've been through the vaults three or four times at the urging of the record label. There's nothing else there. There were a few things that got started for The Long Run, but they didn't have enough steam. They never got finished. If I had my way, they would never be released. Glenn wouldn't want them out.
What are your plans for 2018 – more touring, the studio?
There is nothing etched in stone. Deacon wants to start writing. I think our management is holding some venues, as managers are wont to do. Everyone is so tired from the last two years, what we've been through, that we need a break. After the holidays, as we have traditionally done, we will get together in January and talk about what we want to do – whether we want to do anything, how much we want to do, when to do it. As Glenn used to say, we run this band on a yearly basis. That's still the way it is.
I turned 70 this past July. [Bassist] Timothy Schmit turns 70 today [October 30th]. Joe's 70th is coming up at the end of November. If we can go out and deliver quality performances that our fans have come to expect and that our fans deserve, then we'll probably do some more shows. But when the quality of the performance starts diminishing, I think we'll need to think about hanging it up.
Last night at the Opry, when you opened with the cover of Steve Young's "Seven Bridges Road," you started with that full set of voices in bracing, a cappella harmony – as if to say, "We're still capable of this."
We picked that as our starter because it does showcase everything and everybody: "We're still doing OK."