Don Henley’s “Cass County”: The Sweet Ache of Loss and Reflection

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I knew I was going to like Don Henley’s recently released country album, Cass County, the moment I heard Miranda Lambert’s graceful vocal and the sweet harmonica on the opening song, Tift Merritt’s “Bramble Rose.” The melodic harmonica evoked “Sweet Virginia” from the Rolling Stones’s Exile on Main St., and Lambert reminded me of how country can appeal through and understated melody without the bombast. And then, to my surprise, Mick Jagger sang a verse, nailing his contribution with a sensitivity lacking in some of his faux country fumblings with the Rolling Stones. As it turns out, Jagger had already gently worked his way into the song with his harmonica playing. No wonder “Sweet Virginia” came to mind.

Cass County is a rare album in which guest performances from superstar vocalists enrich an artistic statement instead of sounding like a soulless collection of voices competing for your attention. And there are many guest performances, ranging from Dolly Parton on Charlie and Ira Louvin’s “When I Stop Dreaming” to Merle Haggard on “The Cost of Living,” written by Henley and Stan Lynch. How many albums can you name in which Mick Jagger contributes a vocal lick and is never heard from again? In an interview with Taste of Country, Henley offers some clues as to how he pulled off the collaborations. It’s clear that he had a strong vision for the role he wanted each artist to play. He co-wrote the songs “The Cost of Living” and “No, Thank You” with Merle Haggard and Vince Gill in mind, like a screenwriter crafting a script for an actor. Here is how he describes collaborating with Merle Haggard:

[W]hen we sat down to write “The Cost of Living,” I had Merle Haggard in mind. I could hear his voice in my head, and I wrote accordingly. My great hope was that he would come and sing it with me, and sure enough, he did, and it’s the perfect song for him. He even said, when he heard the guitar solo he said, “You know, that sounds like something I’d do.” I just looked at [co-producer] Stan [Lynch] and grinned, and went, “Yup. That’s ’cause we wrote it with you in mind.”

Cass County is Don Henley’s album, with each artist contributing to his vision, which is why the duets feel graceful and natural, not forced (the bane of hip-hop collaborations). Through his production with Stan Lynch, the multiple voices mesh with the layered instrumentals and Henley’s own distinctive vocal style, which still sounds honey-smooth yet with a whiskey edge (a voice that helped define the country rock sound in the 1970s). Henley has a reputation for being an exacting artist with a strong sense of purpose, attributes which serve him well on Cass County.

The songs on Cass County reflect compelling themes: the decay of small-town life (“Waiting Tables,” whose musical structure and narrative evoke the great “Lyin’ Eyes” from his glory days with the Eagles), the fading of childhood memories (“Train in the Distance”), and the onslaught of age (“The Cost of Living”). In his interview with Taste of Country and also with Ultimate Classic Rock, he reflects on the inevitable loss that comes with growing older. People around you start dying, including the ones who defined your growing-up experiences. At age 68, Henley takes stock of the area where he lived as a child in Cass County, and he senses loss, as he mentions to Taste of Country:

[A] lot of the old folks — the ones that were referred to as “the greatest generation,” the ones who came home from World War II and really made that town tick — are all gone now.

Growing older also means gaining perspective on how your past has influenced you. “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,” he says to Ultimate Classic Rock.

The landscape and people of Cass County, Texas, have had a profound influence on Henley. Cass County is a muse. Exploring the lakes and creeks of the area created images that stuck with him. The simple honesty and caring of the people loom large in his memories. He speaks of Cass County, where he maintains a 200-acre farm, as a creative refuge.

Cass County is for people who have done some living and don’t mind looking back at where they’ve been and how they feel about getting older. In “The Cost of Living,” he sings:

I look in the mirror now

I see that time can be unkind

But I know every wrinkle

And I earned every line

So, wear it like a royal crown

When you get old and gray

It’s the cost of living

And everyone pays

This is not an album for bearded millennial hipsters from Brooklyn. This is an album for me.

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