The two dozen or so vintage radios strung above the stage at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville Sunday night didn’t serve only as decoration for Don Henley’s epic performance in support of his country-leaning new solo album Cass County, which recently debuted at Number One on the country charts.
Prior to taking the stage for a stunning, two-and-a-half-hour, 24-song set that spanned Henley’s entire solo career, a spotlight shone on the various transistors and cathedrals as a snippet of a tune or a news brief blared out, each a sign post on Henley’s journey from small-town Texas to life in the fast lane.
Elvis swaggered through “That’s Alright, Mama,” the Beatles head-bopped through “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” FDR intoned about fear itself and MLK had a dream. There was a swing through “In the Mood,” a bit of Hank Williams’ “Hey, Good Lookin,'” and a smidge of Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together.” It was a canny and artful way to set the tone.
With a beefed-up 10-piece band, including pedal steel and fiddle to better re-create the sounds of Cass County, Henley made clear the connections between those influences and the sounds he’s made ever since.
“Tonight, we’re going to go all over the musical map,” Henley promised, and that he delivered.
He skipped from the sophisticated pop of his hit Eighties catalog — including the contemplative ballad “The Heart of the Matter,” the synthy froth of “All She Wants to Do Is Dance” and a propulsive “The Boys of Summer” — to blues and jazz-flavored detours, including a seasonally appropriate take of “I Put a Spell on You.”
There were fizzy pop covers — Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” — and evocative singer-songwriter fare — a smoldering rendition of Randy Newman’s “Let’s Burn Down the Cornfield.”
Henley also gathered the members of his 10-piece band around microphones for several songs to revel in the group’s rich, layered harmonies, including a shiver-inducing rendition of the overlooked “It Don’t Matter to the Sun,” from Garth Brooks’ much besmirched “Chris Gaines” project.
Henley also dove deep into the sprawling sounds of Cass County, playing 12 of the album’s 16 tracks, which run the gamut from classic weepers like “When I Stop Dreaming” to new originals including the poignant marriage-dissolution ballad “Take a Picture of This.” The through-line came with his unmistakable sugar and sandpaper voice and the way it interpreted both his own incisive lyrics and those of the artists he covered.
The journey did not include any songs from the Eagles catalog, however, since Henley just recently completed a two-year tour with the group. As he said in one of the night’s more rocking numbers, “No, Thank You,” he’s been there and done that. His one nod to his day job was an opening version of “Seven Bridges Road” — a popular cover for the Hall of Famers — sung group-style, center stage.
Since the album was largely recorded in Nashville with several bold-faced country stars on hand to help, many in the crowd were likely expecting one or two of Henley’s many Cass County guests to show up at the Ryman. But they were either all otherwise occupied or Henley simply wanted to showcase the formidable talent he had on hand.
The three female vocalists in the band ably subbed at multiple times for their album counterparts with Erica Swindell stepping into the big shoes of Dolly Parton for “When I Stop Dreaming,” Lily Elise handling the Miranda Lambert duties on the forlorn “Bramble Rose” and Lara Johnston belting out “Words Can Break Your Heart” in place of Trisha Yearwood.
Henley spoke at length between songs cycling through earnest and heartfelt — telling tales about growing up and listening to classic country on the radio — wryly comic and self-deprecating, and his signature curmudgeonly-ness.
Speaking of which, Henley asked the Ryman to enforce a remarkably strict cellphone policy that went beyond asking people to refrain from taking photos or video but to not use their mobile devices at all. Ushers were eagle-eyed in ensuring the policy was obeyed much to the chagrin of some fans. Henley did thank the crowd for honoring his request, asking them to “live in the moment” and there is something to be said for the energy of a crowd all actually paying attention to what’s happening live onstage.