Don Henley on Songwriting and Collaborating for "Cass County"

Named for the northeastern Texas terrain in which he was raised, Cass County is multi-Grammy-winning singer/songwriter Don Henley’s ode to small town America and the rich tapestry of humanity that runs through it. This is, arguably, The Eagles co-founder’s most personal work and it has received critical acclaim across the board. Music Connection recently spoke with Henley about the impetus behind his first solo venture in 15 years, his songwriting process, his voice maintenance regimen, the star-studded list of guest singers he recruited and his working relationship with producer (and former Tom Petty drummer) Stan Lynch.

Music Connection: You’ve stated that Cass County is a work of interior rather than exterior landscapes. Can you explain that?
Don Henley: Yeah. It’s more an album about looking back on my childhood and adolescent years. If you notice on the album I don’t describe the landscape too much except in the song “Praying for Rain.” But the rest of the songs are mostly about personal relationships. And they were influenced by music that I had heard going back to 1955 when I used to listen to the radio with my dad when I went to work with him.

MC: In addition to your originals, you’ve picked interesting covers.
Henley: The cover songs on this album span several decades, beginning with “When I Stop Dreaming,” which was published in 1955, right up to the 2002 Tift Merritt title song from her debut album Bramble Rose. So the cover songs are just milestone songs and songs that I’ve loved that have influenced me—about one per decade. There’s “When I Stop Dreaming” from 1955 and then the ‘60s, with “She Sang Hymns Out of Tune” and the Billy Sherrill song “Too Far Gone.” And Merle Haggard’s album The Way I Am came out in 1980 and that really blew me away. This all gave me a framework in terms of writing the original stuff.

MC: Is there a new song by you on the album that you feel the most personal connection to?
Henley: The most autobiographical song on the album is “Train in the Distance.” That’s about my actual childhood and the railroad tracks that ran by my mother’s house that are still there. So, the album is more of a rumination, if you will, about the span of my life to this point. Some people would call it nostalgia, but I don’t like that word. I like looking at the past and I like visiting the past, but I don’t wanna live there. Just like I don’t wanna live in my hometown (laughs).

MC: What’s it like nowadays there?
Henley: My little hometown is one of those small towns in America that is fading and drying up. It’s not the bustling little town it was when I was growing up there. It’s shrunk from 2,500 people to 1,900 people.

I think things have changed for a lot of small towns. … When the trucking industry became big after WWII they built bypasses around these little towns. So people don’t come through anymore, they just zip on by. You know that happened in Winslow, Arizona (laughs). Route 66 used to go right through town. And they bypassed Winslow so they built that little park commemorating the song “Take it Easy” and they put a bronze statue out there to try to lure people there. So that’s what we’re trying to do in my hometown. We’re trying to come up with things to revive it. I’m still a small town kid even though I’ve been around the world and seen a lot of things.

MC: It’s great that you’re using your art to call attention to these kinds of things.
Henley: I don’t think my album is gonna revive my town or anything, but people need hope. They need something to hang on to in these times. The middle class is disappearing. The middle ground is disappearing, politically speaking. They can’t even agree to disagree in Washington. And I wrote a song about that too called “No, Thank You.” These are tough times.

MC: This is your first solo album in 15 years. What made the timing right to release it now?
Henley: Well, I finally got a break from touring with The Eagles. We’ve been on the road almost every year since we got back together in 1994. I also have three teenagers, so there hasn’t been a whole lot of time for solo work. I started making this album about six years ago. And I just had to work on it during the little windows of time between touring with The Eagles and being a dad. I’ve never been that prolific. I’ve always believed in quality over quantity. But I’m gonna have to speed up the process because I don’t have that much time. I can’t wait another 15 years (laughs).

MC: Is there a favorite place you like to go when you have the time to write?
Henley: Yeah there are a few places. I’ve had really good luck off the Pacific Coast Highway out here. A lot of my ‘80s and ‘90s solo stuff was written out here. “Boys of Summer” was written at a place called Zuma Beach. I like to write in the car because it’s a nice isolated space and the scenery’s always changing. I live in Dallas, Texas and it’s about 160 miles from my hometown in Cass County. And I’ve got a couple of hundred acres there. I have a campsite and I can build a camp fire and sit out there with a guitar and a beer or whatever and I have peace and quiet. I can write pretty much anywhere, except on the road. I don’t have much luck when I’m on tour. My road manager and I exchange literally hundreds of emails a day so I don’t have a lot of spare time. But the work gets done and I enjoy it. I feel fortunate to still be able to be doing this.

MC: You have so many amazing people that you sing with on this album. Did you have certain songs in mind where you thought this person would be a perfect fit to deliver a specific lyric?
Henley: When I wrote “The Cost of Living” I specifically had Merle Haggard in mind. Remember that album I mentioned he did, The Way I Am? He had a song on there called “Life’s Just Not the Way it Used to Be.” He’s always been one of my favorite writers and singers, so I wrote my song with him in mind. When I picked the Louvin Brothers’ song, “When I Stop Dreaming,” I knew Dolly Parton was the only person to make that song work. When you’re singing about teaching pebbles to grow and watching raindrops return to the sky you have to have somebody who has some authenticity in their voice to make that work. And she came into the studio and said she used to do that song with Porter Waggoner. And she did it in two takes.

MC: Were you able to get everyone you wanted?
Henley: The thrilling thing is that, of everybody I asked, nobody turned me down. I was so surprised and delighted when Mick Jagger agreed to sing on the album. We went through Don Was and he said that if Mick likes the song he’ll do it. He’s always been kind and generous to me throughout my career. But I just thought it would be a wacky but interesting combination to have him and Miranda Lambert sing on the same song. Because if you listen to the stuff The Stones recorded together between 1968 and 1972, there’s a lot of country influence in there; “Wild Horses,” “Faraway Eyes,” “Dead Flowers.”

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