When I first heard that Don Henley was taking another stab at a solo album with Cass County, his first in 15 years and his first country album overall, my feelings were mixed. I had given Henley’s last effort, 2000‘s Inside Job, a listen maybe 10 years ago after checking out the CD from the library and could not find a single song to like on it, so my expectations weren’t exactly high. (And the Eagles‘ 2007 comeback album The Long Road Out of Eden was subpar, as well.) While it’s not always the case that old folks can’t make great music anymore, it’s true more often than not — even the greatest musicians and artists tend to have little to say or add as their youth leaves them and their once magnificent sensibilities steadily erode. This is particularly true of bands, since it is really damn difficult to maintain a high level of greatness as a collective and still have the group remain a functioning unit.
The Eagles are as good an example as any of this latter point. After Hotel California, the well was empty, and the group’s first act sputtered to a close after the release of just one more album, 1979‘s The Long Run. Afterward, Henley (the most dominant band member by far at that point, at least in terms of singing lead) embarked upon an immensely successful solo career during the ’80s. In fact, it’s impossible to separate his solo output from the decade in which most of it first appeared since, like most ’80s music, it was awash in the period’s then-cutting edge (and now incredibly dated) synthesizers, drum machines, and other brand new digital technology. Listening to 1981’s “Dirty Laundry,” it’s hard to believe that this is the same guy whose band burst on the scene with the country-rock classics “Take It Easy” and “Peaceful Easy Feeling” not ten years earlier.
Perhaps it’s telling that Henley sang lead on neither tune (Glenn Frey did, may rest in peace); instead, Henley sang on the rocker “Witchy Woman.” Generally speaking, it was Frey who handled the vocal duties on the Eagles’ more country-rock songs (“Lyin’ Eyes,” “Tequila Sunrise,” “New Kid in Town”), with one notable exception: On the Border‘s “The Best of My Love.” Henley sang that one, and it was also the band’s first #1 hit. But Henley mostly stuck to the rockers moving forward: “One of These Nights,” “Hotel California,” “Life in the Fast Lane,” “The Long Run.” So for Henley to make Cass County, which is not just a country-rock album but a country album — with songs that are often more country than anything the Eagles did — is something of a head-scratcher.
What becomes immediately apparent upon listening to Cass County, however, is that what Henley is really doing here is reconnecting with his roots; much of what’s here could fit pretty comfortably on the Eagles’ 1972 debut or their 1973 follow-up, Desperado. And in light of Glenn Frey’s death a few months after the release of Cass County, what becomes even more apparent is that, consciously or not, Henley is trying to do so before it’s too late. At least, that’s how the record plays in the wake of the awful news about Henley’s partner in crime — Henley has repeatedly said in interviews that the Eagles have played their last show now that Frey is no longer around to lead the band. Ironically, Henley spends an entire song on Cass County (the snide “No, Thank You”) insisting that he doesn’t want to waste time revisiting the past; the song culminates in “Don’t tell me to take it easy / ‘Cause I’ve been there, done that.”
Yet it’s unmistakable that Cass County — named after the county in Texas in which Henley grew up in and now lives after retreating from the Hollywood spotlight — is a pivot to his country origins, from the sound of the record to the eye-popping list of guests that grace the album with their presence: Mick Jagger, Miranda Lambert, Merle Haggard (who also died shortly after the album’s release, sadly), Martina McBride, Dolly Parton, Ashley Monroe, Vince Gill, Lee Ann Womack, Michelle Branch, Lucinda Williams, and more. (Additionally, Alison Krauss and Stevie Nicks appear on some bonus tracks for the deluxe edition that’s available exclusively at Target.) But is the album any good? In a word, yes. The first couple songs in particular — a cover of Tift Merrit‘s “Bramble Rose” featuring Jagger and Lambert and “The Cost of Living” featuring Haggard — are great. The rest of the album isn’t quite as strong, but it’s consistently enjoyable — there aren’t any bad songs here and this is deeply palatable music, a trait that carries over from the Eagles’ work. There’s some formula here: “Take a Picture of This,” like many classic Eagles songs, has its title delivered in the chorus in pretty much the same way as “Life in the Fast Lane” or “One of These Nights” or “Lyin’ Eyes” or “Already Gone” or “Peaceful Easy Feeling” or “Take It Easy.” It doesn’t make the song any less enjoyable, it’s just an observation.
“Waiting Tables” has the classic early-Eagles shuffle beat (think “Lyin’ Eyes,” “Tequila Sunrise,” or “Peaceful Easy Feeling”), and its chorus is pretty much the same thing as “Take It Easy”‘s but with different words. Again, still enjoyable, just not particularly original. In a way, it demonstrates how savvy Henley is at this point — if you’re going to go to the trouble of putting out a record, why not at least have it be something people will like? It’s not like Henley, a man worth some $200 million, really has anything interesting to say at this point — he’s “won.” Any sort of social commentary would seem out of place and out of touch for someone nearing 70. (His attempts as he neared 60 on songs like “Long Road Out of Eden,” “Frail Grasp on the Big Picture,” and “Business as Usual” on Long Road Out of Eden were pretty embarrassing and heavy-handed, truth be told.)
Instead, he plays within his means, and avoids sounding like the crotchety old man he comes across as during interviews and via his — and his band’s — frequently litigious actions. (His ongoing feud with Frank Ocean is pretty comical; at the heart of it is a generational difference in how music is viewed.) As a result, Cass County is strong — as strong as anything either Henley or the Eagles have done since Henley’s 1989 album The End of the Innocence. And while that album hasn’t really aged that well due to its dated production — it’s not as synth-heavy as 1984‘s Building the Perfect Beast though, thank God — and heavy-handed songs (“I Will Not Go Quietly,” “New York Minute,” and “Gimme What You Got” are pretty great though), Cass County has a more timeless feel, and it turns out to be a better fit for Henley, it would seem.