Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
While he isn’t generally considered a country artist, there is no question that C&W music has played a substantial part in Don Henley’s career. Named after the Texas county where he was raised, Henley doubles down on a melodic twang somewhere between “Lyin’ Eyes” and “Desperado” for a dozen track (16 on the deluxe version) that establishes his bona fides in the genre.
Henley’s star status allows him to call first line players, and especially singers, to assist on his first solo release in 15 years, recorded in Dallas and Nashville. Instrumentally, current Eagle guitarist Steuart Smith and Vince Gill lend their talents. But it’s on female harmonies/duets where Henley calls in the big guns; Miranda Lambert, Dolly Parton, Martina McBride, Alison Krauss, Lucinda Williams, Ashley Monroe and Trisha Yearwood all pitch in to help realize his country dream album. On the male side there are no lesser lights than Merle Haggard and even Mick Jagger doing his best “Faraway Eyes” imitation. But all those heavy hitters wouldn’t mean much without quality material, which is where Cass County excels.
Henley, generally in association with ex-Heartbreakers drummer Stan Lynch (who also co-produced), has written a solid batch of ballads and pensive mid-tempo rockers that while maybe not up to the standards of some Eagles hits, come awfully close. Tracks such as the languid and lovely “Words Can Break Your Heart,” “Waiting Tables” with its hangdog/hopeful story of a waitress looking for better days and the ecological “Praying for Rain” are bittersweet without being pretentious or schlocky. Henley looks back on his wilder younger days with an honest eye on what seems like an autobiographical rocker “Where I am Now” (the full chorus is “I like where I am now”) and the sharply observed ballad “Take a Picture of This” (“a long long time ago/when we were young and pretty”). Every track has a melody that creates a peaceful easy feeling with choruses you can sing after the first spin. Henley’s trademarked scotch and soda vocals have seldom seemed so effortless and comfortable as they wrap around these songs with sublime warmth that feels genuine.
A few covers such as Tift Merritt’s wonderfully graceful “Bramble Rose” and the Louvin Brothers’ “When I Stop Dreaming” (featuring a knockout vocal from Parton) are included in the 12 track edition. But others on the extended disc such as the Harry Nilsson sung gem “She Sang Hymns Out of Tune,” Jesse Winchester’s classic “The Brand New Tennessee Waltz” and Billy Sherrill’s “Too Far Gone” show Henley digging deeper under the country surface for some rather obscure gold.
There is a tendency to scoff at the clichéd “back to his roots” concept of Cass County and you can’t help but wish some of the occasionally slick production was dialed down a notch. Regardless, it yields arguably Henley’s finest solo work and, at its best, music that stands with the Eagles’ finest country influenced moments.