As an author, Mitch Albom has sold over 35 million copies of his books and has had multiple No. 1 New York Times Bestsellers, but Mitch got his start as a musician. He has written songs for TV and film, and is a member of the Rock Bottom Remainders. His upcoming novel The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto recounts the story of a mythical musician to showcase both the power of music and its necessity in our lives. The book is out November 10, 2015.
(photo credit: Jenny Risher)
When someone hails from a sparse corner of Texas, you can’t say he’s “returning” to country music. Odds are it is in his blood.
Don Henley’s first solo album in 15 years, Cass County (named for his childhood stomping grounds in the Lone Star State), feels as natural as any pedal steel-and-mandolin-laced record could feel for a guy who’s also a world-famous rock star and founder of one of history’s most successful bands. Even the cover art, a black-and-white photo of a semi-bearded Henley emerging from a truck, suggests one of those ads where former football star Brett Favre goes back to his Mississippi farm. And on some levels, there are parallels.
Henley’s voice often led the strong parade of big songs for the Eagles, from “One of These Nights” to “The Long Run” to “Witchy Woman.” But even in that band’s towering hits, such as “Best of My Love” or “Desperado,” you heard the foundational roots of great country songs. And Henley builds from those roots on his new disc, creating equally pleasing if more pared-down songs.
Henley reportedly worked on this album on and off for years. It shows in the careful — if varied — production. And let’s say this up front: he sounds great. Not the same. Not as young. (He is, after all, sixty-eight now — nearly forty years past “Hotel California.”) But perfect for this collection.
The album begins with a cover tune, Tift Merritt’s haunting “Bramble Rose,” and on the chorus Henley wails like he might be taking an Elvis Costello-like spin on America’s heartland music. He brings in Miranda Lambert for the second verse and Mick Jagger for the third, creating, by the finish, as unlikely a trio as you’ll ever find to open a solo record.
But from the next track on, Henley eases into simply played and neatly crafted originals (eleven of them co-written with friend, fellow drummer and co-producer Stan Lynch), few straying much beyond four chords and campfire strumming, employing fiddles and mandolins and that reliable pedal steel to backdrop Henley’s honey-fog voice, which is often plaintive, occasionally rocking, and always right on the tune.
This is a meat-and-potatoes music-and-lyrics record. Nary a solo to be found, and quick, three-note walk-ups between verse and chorus. Henley is no stranger to reflective songs, end-of-innocence lyrics, and poignant themes, with the occasional dash of thinly veiled salvos. Cass County — a generous sixteen tracks if you purchase the deluxe edition — has all of those things.
The strongest songs are the ones that evoke the purest country simplicity. Several of these are covers: “The Brand New Tennessee Waltz” (a Jesse Winchester composition), which Henley sings as if he’s done it a thousand times, and “When I Stop Dreaming,” a spot-on duet with a terrific Dolly Parton, which sounds as fresh and gripping as when the Louvin Brothers released it sixty years ago. You could easily imagine Henley and Parton sharing a microphone at the Ryman Auditorium back then, doing this very number.
Henley gruffly delivers the notable original “A Younger Man,” a wry composition where an older man tells a presumably younger companion it’s not working out. (“I knew the day I met you, it was never gonna last/ you’re an angel from the future, I’m an old devil from the past.”) And a piano-infused bluesy number, “Too Much Pride” evokes a Ray Charles-crossover song, complete with female backup (The Don-ettes?). Even Merle Haggard makes an appearance on Henley’s purest country composition, “The Cost of Living,” a slow but steady paean to aging (“I know every wrinkle and I earned every line…. It’s the cost of living/and everyone pays.”)
For those who like their Eagles man more upbeat and biting, there is “No, Thank You,” a country-rocking rebuke of commercialism (“If what they’re offering to you looks too good to be true, you can bet your bottom dollar that it is”) and “That Old Flame,” with an almost punkish bass and guitar line and a strident vocal trade-off with Martina McBride.
There are also two socially aware numbers, “Waiting Tables” (about a single-mom waitress) and “Praying for Rain” (with its overtones of global warming), which nobly portray small-town Americana and its farmlands but sometimes fall into lyrical predictability (“Lord, I’ve never been a praying man, but I’m saying one tonight…”)
Still, these are small quibbles. Artists like Henley unfairly face dual-edged blades of high expectations and backward-looking comparisons. Neither allows you to judge a new release on its own merits.
When you do that with Cass County, you find there are at least a dozen songs you remember after the first listen and can sing with by the third. That’s a pretty high batting average. It’s harply produced and dotted with a who’s-who cast of background singers and harmonizers (Alison Krauss, Trisha Yearwood, Lee Ann Womack, Lucinda Williams, etc.). Although Henley clearly put major time and effort into this record, he didn’t overthink it into dense oblivion.
One of the last tracks, the most poetic, is a wistful life examination called “Train in the Distance.” Paul Simon once wrote a song with the same title, with the lyric, “Everybody loves the sound of a train in the distance, everybody thinks it’s true.” That is the highest compliment you can pay Henley on this album named for the quiet place where he grew up: it sounds true.