One of the biggest issues plaguing country music lately has been the ever growing amount of influences from other genres. This often comes in the form of musical stylings, but it also comes from outside artists as well. Sheryl Crow, Steven Tyler, Bon Jovi, Jessica Simpson, Brett Michaels, Uncle Kracker, and Kid Rock have all made attempts at country music in the past, with varying results. The latest to join the crossover brigade is Don Henley. You may recognize him as one of the founding members of The Eagles. You won’t find a more polarizing band in country music, or any genre for that example. Some people think The Eagles are honorary members of the country music world, as their sound always walked that line between country and rock. Others want to place most of the blame for the rock infused sound of today on bands like The Eagles. The truth probably lies somewhere between those two points. With all that being said, a lot of eyes were on Don when he announced his country album, Cass County. The good news is that Don took this seriously and created a labor of love for the genre. Cass County is as about as solid of a traditional country album you will hear in 2015 from the most unlikely of sources.
Cass County proves what can happen when someone from outside the genre takes the time and consideration to actually attempt a legitimate effort at representing country music. In short, Don Henley did not make a pseudo-Eagles album and slap a country label on it. Nor did he just make an American rock album and throw the country name on it. He took the time and effort to make an actual country album. And he did a fantastic job at it. Just because something is traditional country doesn’t make it automatically good, but this album is both traditional and good. Don’s voice has always been tailor made for country music and feels right at home mixed with tight harmonies and steel guitars. Not every single song on the album is old school. There are some decent songs that have a more contemporary feel, most notably “That Old Flame” with Martina McBride. Either way though, all of these songs have grit and meaning. There are no tailgates and hotties to be found. This is country music for grown-ups who like country music. This is the way it should be.
There are multiple songs that really stand out. “Praying For Rain” is a great story song about the plight of the American Farmer that tells what the agriculture life is actually like, a far cry from the bonfires in cornfields you hear on country radio. “When I Stop Dreaming” is a great cover of the Louvin Brothers classic that finds Dolly Parton making a guest appearance and taking the song the great new heights. “Bramble Rose” has appearances from Miranda Lambert and Mick Jagger. Yes, that Mick Jagger. Believe it or not, he feels right at home in country music. I’d love to see Mick do a similar album in the future. “The Brand New Tennessee Waltz” had great harmony vocals from Allison Krauss and once again shows Henley touching on his roots. My favorite song on the album is the Merle Haggard duet “The Cost Of Living”. The song deals out advice that only two guys with the track record of Henley and Haggard could ever pull off with any authenticity. Merle sounds better than he has in years, due in part to Henley’s desire for perfection on the album. Haggard claimed that Henley's almost overbearing obsession with hitting the perfect notes made Haggard want to “kick his ass” during the recording session, but the end result proves that Don’s strong pushing was for the best. The song is one of the best of the year.
Nine times out of ten, outsiders to country music show up to carpetbag the genre and make a buck off of our traditions. Don Henley’s Cass County is an example of that rare instance when the artist really wants to explore his roots. While the “country” stars of today continue to make bad pop, it takes a rocker to show up and prove how it’s really done. I came into Cass County not expecting much, and I leave having listened to one of the best albums of the year. Check out Cass County to hear a great interpretation of country music from someone who appeared to be an outsider, but in the end understands country music more than most insiders do.
Standout Tracks: "The Cost Of Living", "When I Stop Dreaming", "The Brand New Tennessee Waltz", "Bramble Rose", "Praying For Rain"
"When I Stop Dreaming" (feat. Dolly Parton)
"The Cost Of Living" (feat. Merle Haggard)
"Bramble Rose" (feat. Miranda Lambert & Mick Jagger)