Don Henley on New ‘Cass County’ Album: ‘Quality Is More Important Than Quantity’
Don Henley is best known for his work in one of the top-selling rock bands of all time, but he returns to his roots in country music for his new solo album, Cass County.
The singer-songwriter and drummer is a founding member of the Eagles, and he’s also had an enormously successful solo career. He’s devoted most of his professional time to the Eagles the past two decades, releasing his most recent solo outing, Inside Job, in 2000.
On Sept. 25, the 68-year-old Henley will release Cass County, which finds him returning to his country roots. He worked in Nashville with some of the most prestigious Music City studio musicians; there are also guest appearances from a long list of top country singers, as well as from Mick Jagger. Former Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers drummer Stan Lynch co-produced the project and co-wrote extensively with Henley on the tracks, while guitarist Steuart Smith — who’s been working with the Eagles since 2001 — contributed heavily to the music.
Henley talked at length about Cass County when Ultimate Classic Rock caught up with him at a studio in Nashville last week. The singer is going all-out to promote the album, keeping a very busy schedule of TV appearances and supporting the release with a tour that starts Oct. 3 in Phoenix. In the in-depth interview that follows, he makes it clear that the album was a labor of love.
We want to start off by thanking you for the artistry that went into this album. It’s obviously a product of a great deal of personal care.
Well, thank you. I’m glad that you noticed. I’ll be glad if anybody notices. A great deal of personal care did go into this album, as well as about six years of time. Not every minute of every day of six years, but over a span of six years, we wrote and recorded this album. So yeah, we put a great deal of effort, and attention to detail and thought into this record, and I hope it shows in the grooves. The good folks up at Gateway Mastering up in Maine said that it was one of the better albums that they had worked on in a long time, and they, too, commented on the care and the clarity of the production of the record. So I appreciate that.
"I’ve never been known for being prolific, but to me, quality is more important than quantity, and always has been."
This is your first solo album in 15 years.
And you want to know why, don’t you? [Laughs]. I’m in this other band, and we’ve been on tour almost every year since we regrouped in 1994. We’ve been all over the world, particularly in the past four or five years. That, plus the fact that I have three wonderful teenagers at home, and it is very important to me to be a good parent. So when I am home, I devote a lot of my time to those kids.
So between the Eagles — which is one set of my kids [Laughs] — and my birth children, we had to make this album in the cracks, so to speak; in the time in between. Plus I have a couple of non-profits that I run. I have the Walden Woods Project, which celebrated its 25th anniversary this year, and I have another non-profit down in East Texas called the Caddo Lake Institute, and that takes some of my time. Anyway, we found the time to make this album, and we didn’t rush it. I’ve never been known for being prolific, but to me, quality is more important than quantity, and always has been. So I’m perfectly content — I don’t worry about the passage of time, I don’t worry about my age. I just worry about the material.
Stan Lynch co-produced this album, he co-wrote many of the songs — he has a very, very big fingerprint on the album. What does he bring to this album that you wouldn’t have done in his absence?
[Pause] Oh, gosh, I don’t know how to answer that. First of all, Stan is one of my best friends. We’ve been close friends for a long time. Things we have in common are that we’re both drummers, we’ve both been in big, popular groups, we both have the same sense of humor. Stan is one of the funniest people I’ve ever met, and he’s smart. And we both have a passion for music; not just contemporary music, not just modern music, but the history of music. We both go back several decades, and we know about the music of our lifetimes, and even the music before our lifetimes. He has a passion about that that I really admire. He’s also got a great work ethic, and I have a work ethic, too, that I got from my parents. So we have those things in common, and he just makes recording fun. His enthusiasm and his humor; just having him in the same room, and the things that come out of his mouth …[Laughs]. He’ll just zing a one-liner out there, and sometimes those one-liners will end up going into a song. He’s great at filling in the blanks when I get stuck, and he’s not afraid … when we do songwriting, we get in a room together and just pick up a couple of acoustic guitars, and we just head bang. And we’re close enough friends that we can talk about anything.
Another contribution to this album is his knowledge of the recording scene here in Nashville. He’s been coming up here for years, doing songwriting sessions and working on publishing matters, and he was much more familiar with the terrain than I was. He had a list of the top-level studio musicians, and he knew who to call when we started recording this album. That was his role as a producer. He fills that role well. He’s also — I sort of mentored him as a songwriter, and I’ve seen him improve over the years and get more confident as a songwriter. He has a little studio at his home in Florida so he can create tracks. His contributions are, as you said, monumental to this album.
Another name that appears a lot in the credits is Steuart Smith. What’s his role in this album?
Steuart Smith is one of the best musicians I’ve ever worked with in my life, and he is also very well known and respected here in Nashville. I’m fortunate enough to have him as my lead guitarist in my touring band, and he contributed a lot. He contributed to the songwriting and a lot of the arrangements, played not only guitar, but played piano on a couple of tunes. He’s just an incredibly valuable asset to have, because of his astonishing ability to play just about anything. He deserves an enormous amount of credit for the way this album turned out.
A real focus track on this album is “Praying for Rain.” A line that jumps out is, “I ain’t no wise man, but I ain’t no fool / And I believe that Mother Nature is taking us to school.” That speaks to your long-term interest in environmental issues, and you were ahead of people on that for a long time. What inspired that song specifically?
“Taking us to school” is a colloquialism that we say in the South. It used to be used in terms of punishment; when somebody was about to get their butt whooped, or maybe when a football team just got creamed by somebody else, the term was, “Well, we’re gonna take you to school.” So I do believe that Mother Nature is taking us to school. I wanted to address that subject, which is still a very controversial subject, because there’s still a lot of denial in the face of trainloads of science. [Laughs]. Overwhelming science. A consensus in the world scientific community among scientists who are legitimate and respected. And yet, the seeds of doubt have been sown by certain corporations and their allies in Congress. There have been millions of dollars poured into sowing the seeds of doubt. There’s a book about it.
It’s a shame, really. We have such a beautiful planet we’ve been given to live on — you can call it the Creation if you want to — that we are treating it the way we are, because we’re really only doing ourselves in. We’re hurting ourselves, really. My friend Ed Begley likes to say, “Everybody’s going around saying, ‘Save the planet.’ The planet will be fine.” [Laughs]. It’s we who are leaving.
Listen to Don Henley’s ‘Praying for Rain’
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So I thought, ‘How can I approach this without it being a sermon, or getting all preachy and angry about it?’ So I decided to approach it from the humble viewpoint of a farmer himself, and he’s not sure what the answers are, either. He just know from personal observation that something’s different, that the weather patterns are not the way they used to be, and he doesn’t know why. The most important lines in that song are the ones that come shortly after what you just quoted, I think, which say, “It isn’t knowledge, it’s humility we lack.” It seems that we have so much hubris, that we’re just so arrogant and insecure, that certain people not only in this country, but all over the world just can’t say the words, “We made a mistake.” Or a series of mistakes. It’s just like the politicians; “Well, I didn’t make a mistake. I’ve just been misunderstood.”
We’ve made a series of mistakes, and by the time we get to the middle of this century, it’s going to be too late to turn back any of those mistakes. The writing is on the wall. The data is incontrovertible, and as we said before, there are trainloads of it. There are photographs. You can go and photograph the melting glaciers, and people are still saying it’s not happening. It’s just unbelievable. It reminds me of that old saying, “You’d lie if the truth would help.” So that song addresses that from the viewpoint of the common man, and it’s also pretty timely, given what’s going on out West. I mean, good lord, those people could use some rain out in California, Nevada, Utah. I hope the whole state of California doesn’t burn down before the rainy season comes. They’re predicting a big, wet winter because of El Nino, but it’s a long time until the rains are gonna start.
"We’ve made a series of mistakes, and by the time we get to the middle of this century, it’s going to be too late to turn back any of those mistakes."
“Where I Am Now,” the final song, embodies the themes of the album more than any other song. Of course, you had to leave where you came from in order to make your career happen, but you’ve returned to your roots both personally, and now musically with this record. What does that song and this album tell us about Don Henley and where you are now?
There’s a great quote from the poet T. S. Eliot that I’ve been quoting a lot lately. It says, “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all of our exploring will be to arrive where we started, and know the place for the first time.” I’m still trying to get to know my hometown and what it’s all about, because every time I go back there, I see it through different eyes, even if only a year has elapsed. I do see it as a microcosm of America, and the world as a whole. I want to help my hometown if I can … It’s a creative place for me; it’s the place where I can still find peace. I’ve got about a 200-acre farm there on the outskirts, and I go out there, and I can see the stars, which I can’t see in the city. If you look up — one thing we don’t do enough as human beings, we don’t look up. We’re looking down, or straight ahead. I take my kids there and make campfires. We walk through the woods. So it’s a place of solace and solitude for me, where I can get some thinking done, and some writing done, and regain a sense of who I am. It’s how I can re-locate myself in the present and have time to think about those things, and the circular nature of life. It’s just a place of reflection, and a place where I can get perspective.
I’ve come to learn in my age that perspective is probably the most important — besides your health, perspective is the most important thing you can have, and it’s hard to get, and it’s even harder to keep. [Laughs]. Especially when you’re on tour. So that’s what my hometown means to me.
Is there anything else you want to say about the record before we go today?
I just want to say that I’m grateful for everyone who participated in this album; all the guest vocalists, who are a really stellar bunch. I wanted people to sing on this album whose voices I think are authentic and real, and people that I know, when they walk into a studio and walk up to a microphone, you know that the job is gonna get done and done well. I’m eternally grateful to all of them for showing up for me.
I’m really honored to have been able to work with legends like Merle Haggard and Dolly Parton and Mick Jagger, who … that made some people scratch their heads, but it made perfect sense to me. There’s a country part of him — you listen to everything the Stones recorded from ’68 and ’72, which has just been re-issued, you can hear it, so I thought he was the perfect choice. So we’ll see what happens with this record. It’s gonna be an interesting ride.
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