Cass County (Capitol, 2015)
Reviewed by Henry L. Carrigan Jr.
When Don Henley announced last year that he'd be making a country album, the collective groan went up: "oh, boy; here we go again; another country wannabe." Yet, if any artist might seem to be able to make the transition to country, it should be Henley, who Kenny Rogers (then still with the First Edition) brought to LA, giving Henley and his band, Shiloh, his first break, and whose band, the Eagles, hung out with the rest of back-to-the-country hippies in Laurel Canyon.
Using his star power, Henley assembles an all-star cast of country musicians - from Miranda Lambert and Merle Haggard to Dolly Parton and Lee Ann Womack - to sit in with him on this collection of mostly original songs, almost all of which he co-wrote with former Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers drummer Stan Lynch (who's also the producer).
The album starts out promisingly enough, with a steel guitar-drenched take on Tift Merritt's "Bramble Rose." Lambert and Mick Jagger each take a turn at a verse, but for all its momentary beauty, we soon realize that this take is a combination of The Stones' "Far Away Eyes" and the Eagles' "Hollywood Waltz." Merle Haggard joins Henley on a classic country lament, "The Cost of Living," which comes across as a slowed down, countrified "End of the Innocence." There's little to distinguish "Where I Am Now" from "Dirty Laundry." His takes on older songs may be the best tracks.
Henley slows down the Billy Sherrill classic "Too Far Gone" to a molasses drip, yet it may be one of the most haunting and expressive songs on the album; Henley abhors overproduction - even though he's long practiced it on albums such as "Hotel California" - and this stripped down version captures the song's longing and despair. Henley's turns in a lively take on Jesse Winchester's "Brand New Tennessee Waltz," and he reproduces The Dillards' version of Jessie Lee Kincaid's "She Sang Hymns Out of Tune" almost note for note, right down to the strain of the church organ that opens The Dillards' version.
Henley's voice is a strong as ever, but there are no surprises here, and neither are there any distinctive tunes that stick with us after the needle lifts off the last groove. The wisest move Henley made for this album was to surround himself with country artists who bring a beauty to the album he could never achieve on his own.
CDs by Don Henley
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