Country music has seen a lot of outsiders come into gene and try their hand at making country music. The majority of course are doing it for a quick cash grab because their own careers are flailing and they see a financial opportunity with the current popularity of country music. In other words, no artistic thought is put into the music. But the big exception amongst these outsiders is Don Henley. The former frontman of the Eagles, who has had a successful solo career too, demonstrated up front that he was serious about his new album Cass County. He brought in top-notch country talent like Vince Gill, Jamey Johnson, Alison Krauss, Ashley Monroe, Lucinda Williams, Trisha Yearwood and a host of others. He also had this to say in an interview with Rolling Stone:
“I can truthfully say that I enjoyed making this record more than any record I’ve made in my career. And a lot of the reason is because of the people who participated. There’s some amazing musicians here and the best thing about it is, most of them are funny. So it was a real pleasure.”
These are encouraging words to hear about an album from any artist. So with this in mind I dug into Cass County expecting a good album. But it’s not a good album. It’s a fantastic album that surprised me with the amount of depth and artistry that is present throughout it.
Cass County opens up with “Bramble Rose,” where Miranda Lambert and Mick Jagger join Henley. It may sound like an odd trio on paper, but once you hear the song they work together quite well actually (Jagger sounds surprisingly great). The arrangement and instrumentation are spot on and really lets all of the artists shine. It should be also be mentioned this song was originally performed and written by alternative country artist Tift Merritt, so credit to Henley for picking this great song out to feature on his album. On “Cost of Living” Henley collaborates with the legendary Merle Haggard. The song is about how we all have to pay the cost of living eventually in life and dealing with getting older in age. It’s perfectly appropriate to have two old souls like Henley and Haggard perform this song, as these two know this lesson as good as anyone. (By the way notice how Henley teams up with Haggard and Jaggar to make great music, instead of just carelessly namedropping them)
“Take A Picture Of This” is about a couple reflecting back on the memories they’ve had together. But by the end of the song the man feels like he doesn’t know his wife anymore and decides to leave her, as he realizes he has been living in the past. It tells a good story and the swerve at the end of the song is a nice touch. The hook of the song is catchy and easy to remember too. Henley shows off his storytelling chops once more with “Waiting Tables.” The story of the song is about a young girl who grew up in a small town, got married to a “reckless fool” at too young of an age and ended up a single mother at 23 years old. Now she’s stuck waiting tables and biding her time, waiting to move on to bigger things. She thinks she might have found it when a “handsome man” comes along, but it just turns out to be a one-night stand and she’s left to waiting tables once more. The story told here is raw, real and brilliantly put together. More than anything the song is a lesson about how tough life is and having that everlasting hope that things will get better. This is undoubtedly a highlight of Cass County.
The rocking and catchy “No, Thank You” follows. It’s about not falling for the everyday bullshit thrown your way and how the world is constantly trying to get you to fall for the next big thing. As Henley succinctly puts at the beginning of the song, we have “space age machinery, stone age emotions.” It reminds me a lot of something Dwight Yoakam would cut on one of his albums. The pedal steel guitar heavy “Praying For Rain” is about farmers dealing with drought and hoping for rain soon. It’s a real throwback song in every way and Henley just hits it out of the park. The smooth, easy-going tone of the song combined with the simple storytelling of the lyrics makes for one great song.
“Words Can Break Your Heart” is one of the slower and more emotion songs of the album. It’s about how words can be so cutting and mean and can tear a person apart. Henley really captures how verbal abuse can hurt you and your relationship with someone. This is probably one of the less memorable songs on the album, but it’s still quite good. The lead single from Cass County, “That Old Flame,” is next. I reviewed this song when it first came out and my thoughts have remained largely unchanged, although I think I like it even more now. From my review:
The song is about a man who receives a message from an old friend who wanted to get back in touch. The man wonders what this woman wants after losing touch for so many years. He seems to think she wants to rekindle a lost flame, but he knows there is danger of getting burned in doing this. She knows this too and only wanted to reach out to let him know that she’s doing fine and to just reconnect with an old friend. Both wonder whether they miss each other or just their lost days of youth. It’s a well-written song that does a good job telling the story of long-lost friends and their days of romance long behind them. He’s joined on the song by Martina McBride, who always has and always will have a great voice.
There are a lot of fantastic songs on this album, but none are greater than “When I Stop Dreaming.” Henley teams up with the iconic Dolly Parton to deliver an amazing song. Both bring out the absolute best in each other. Dolly’s vocals are goose-bump inducing and this isn’t hyperbole. This is one you just need to sit down and hear for yourself because I can’t do it justice. “A Younger Man” is about a young woman falling for an older man and believing she’s in love with him. But the older man assures her that he is not what she is looking for and that she’s looking for a younger man. The line that sums it up best is when Henley sings “You’re an angel from the future/I’m an old devil from the past.” This is just an example of the top-notch songwriting on this song and really the whole album.
One of the running themes of the album is looking back to the past and looking forward to the future, which is what “Train In The Distance” is all about. Henley reflects back on the simpler days of his childhood and now as an adult faces responsibilities, obligations and taking care of his family. But Henley reminds himself that there’s always that train coming in the distance. This is one of those songs makes you reflect on yourself and creates this mixture of nostalgia and hope. Cass County comes to a close with “Where I Am Now.” It’s definitely the most rock-influenced song of the album, but still maintains a country sound giving us a sort of Bakersfield vibe. The song itself is about Henley reflecting on his life and liking where he is in life right now compared to where he was. All of his experiences and places he has been have shaped him into the person he’s wanted to be. It’s a nice way to end the album.
Cass County excels in pretty much every area a country album needs to excel in. Henley’s voice is excellent, the songwriting is strong, the instrumentation even stronger and each of the guests on the album contribute something meaningful. It’s 2015 and Don Henley has delivered one of the best country albums of the year. Can you believe it? There have been a lot of pleasant surprises in country music in 2015, but this may be the biggest. Each time I listen to this album it gets better, which I think will allow this album to age well. It’s something you can play a couple of years from now and still sound just as good. This is undoubtedly an album of the year contender and a must-listen. If Henley wants to stick around and make another country album, that would be just great. I think country music suits Don Henley just fine.