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Don Henley’s Cass County

Don Henley - Publicity Shot #2 (Credit Danny Clinch)During one of the interviews given to promote his new solo album, Don Henley mentioned that he writes poetry. When his voice gives out, he said, that’s probably what he’ll turn to. This would have been no surprise to admirers of “The Boys of Summer”, his solo hit from 1984, which has an opening verse whose perfect cadences seem to come complete with punctuation: “Nobody on the road, nobody on the beach. I feel it in the air: the summer’s out of reach. Empty lake, empty streets; the sun goes down alone. I’m driving by your house though I know you’re not home.”

It’s a great pop song, of course, with a dark undertow — just like many of the best Eagles songs, from “Hotel California” to “King of Hollywood”. In the Eagles’ world, no pleasure was ever unmixed. The same trait also marked out the best products of Henley’s solo career, including the four great songs from The End of the Innocence, his third solo album: “The Last Worthless Evening”, “New York Minute”, “The Heart of the Matter” and the title track. These were songs that had something to say about the human experience back in 1989 and have lost none of their truth and resonance.

His new album, Cass County, contains many outstanding moments, beginning with the opening track, Tift Merritt’s “Bramble Rose”, a gorgeous slow waltz with a killer chord change, in which Henley takes the first verse, Miranda Lambert the second, and Mick Jagger — in his “Wild Horses” mode — the third. It’s one you can play over and over again, just waiting for that change, which Henley brings out more effectively than Merritt did on her excellent original version in 2002 (clue: listen for the words “a bramble rose”).

The album arrived on a Saturday morning. I put it on while I was having breakfast and ended up playing it all the way through three times, non-stop. Among the other notable tracks are Jesse Lee Kincaid’s “She Sang Hymns Out of Tune”, a favourite from the Dillards’ Wheatstraw Suite album back in 1968; the rocking “That Old Flame”, with a great lyric on which he’s joined by the wonderful Martina McBride; and Jesse Winchester’s ever-lovely “The Brand New Tennessee Waltz”. Merle Haggard and Dolly Parton are among the album’s other participants.

On these songs, the poetry isn’t in the words. It’s in Henley’s voice. That sound of bruised longing is one we know so well,  immediately evoking good and bad times and the complex feelings that went with them. Whatever he had back then, he’s hung on to it.

* Cass County is out now on Capitol Records. The photograph of Don Henley was taken by Danny Clinch.

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9 Comments Post a comment
  1. Dennis Muirhead #

    I heard Don Henley perform a song from his new album at the Americana Music Fest in Nashville in mid September when he was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award. I wasn’t very impressed with the performance but it was late after a long night of awards. I’ve never bought an Eagles record but I will have to listen to Henley’s album to hear his version of Jessie Winchester’s The Brand New Tennessee Waltz. I’m ready to be converted with the help of a great song.

    October 9, 2015
  2. I was surprised by how good this album is, although he’s an uneven writer who often strays into the merely generic eg Praying For Rain on the new album. Agree totally re Boys of Summer but surprised you don’t mention what is, for me, by far the best track on EotI, The Heart of the Matter (the Greene reference is no accident) which is the best song I know dealing with divorce. Introduced it to a relative going through a break-up and he immediately had it on repeat play, singing along to that one word ‘forgiveness’: it’s also the song that Henley rates as his best ever, alongside TBoS.

    October 9, 2015
  3. Thanks, David. I meant to include it. Don’t know how I left it off. Incredibly stupid of me, particularly since I’ve been singing it to myself for the last couple of days. I think I’ll have to retrofit the post to get it in.

    October 9, 2015
    • Well, feel free to delete my comment when you’ve done so. Renowned music writer Marcello Carlin had a listen to Cass County after seeing me tweet about it earlier. He wrote ‘all I could hear was Grumpy Old MacMeldrew’. I do know what he means…

      October 9, 2015
  4. My favourite living white male singer, I think. Cass County on heavy rotation round here. “The four (post amendment) great songs from The End of the Innocence, his third solo album” – totally agree, as soon as I saw the word ‘four’ I knew that would be the list. “the rocking “That Old Flame”, with a great lyric on which he’s joined by the wonderful [agreed] Martina McBride” – repeat, repeat, repeat. Can’t get enough of it. “Whatever he had back then, he’s hung on to it.” – agree. In addition to his great voice, his lyrics are (usually) way up there – ‘The Cost Of Living’ (duet with Merle Haggard) being a case in point. This will probably tie with Richard Thompson’s ‘Still’ as my favourite record of the year. It’s good to read something positive about Don Henley, some people just don’t get it.

    October 9, 2015
  5. Great review. I suspect this album will be a sleeper and get even better with related listenings. It certainly sounded good on my first play, a casual listen whilst cooking so not fool attention. Incidentally Tift Merritt was a new name to me but saw her recently here in Sydney supporting Mary Chapin Carpenter where she introduced ‘Bramble Rose’ by saying how doubly chuffed she was to have Don and Mick Jagger singing one of her songs!

    October 9, 2015
    • Fat finger syndrome … repeated not related and full not fool.

      October 9, 2015
  6. charlie seaward #

    Don Henley singing
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A7pRf3TJVC8

    October 23, 2015
  7. must note that the very same bass you liked so much on This Nearly Was Mine (a William Forster, made for King George III) is the bass i play on Hotel California and Desperado !
    such are the vagaries of the good bass belonging to the freelance music whore !

    November 6, 2015

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