The world can now listen to Don Henley's first solo album in 15 years, a back-to-roots project called Cass County. It's named for the northeast Texas area where Henley grew up, where the 68-year-old musical giant encountered plenty of struggle, determination, authenticity and love.
It's no wonder, then, that for the sound of the new record, Henley and longtime collaborator Stan Lynch wrote and covered tunes perfectly designed for twang-laced vocals and steel guitars. Furthermore, the pair reached out to some of the most serious talents in both Nashville and Dallas, where they recorded the material for Cass County.
The result, like Henley's four previous solo records, is a collection that's overall accessible and exquisitely arranged. Henley's approach to singing this time around allows for some welcome technical imperfections -- in other words, he's avoided the endless vocal tweaking and trusted his narrative gifts.
To my ears, there are a handful of tracks that stand out above the rest:
"Train in the Distance": This is a song that can only be found on the 16-track deluxe edition of Cass County, but it should have opened the whole thing. It begins with the lyric, "when I was a young boy" and evokes the subtle longing of a, yep, train in the distance. As Henley often does so well, he begins with a personal story and works his way into a larger meditation on human experience. The sound keeps expanding, like an approaching train itself. By the end, Lucinda Williams and a choir are backing Henley and you're swept up. Why, again, is this a "bonus" track?
"Praying for Rain": This one laments the need for actual rain over the crops and then slyly pivots to a message about how people have mistreated the earth. But where there's environmental frustration, there's also harmonic bliss, especially when the voices of heavyweights Trisha Yearwood, Vince Gill, Alison Krauss and Ashley Monroe are heard in the chorus. Yearwood, a past Henley collaborator, appears on a couple of other tracks as a harmonizer, including the harder-hitting "Where I Am Now."
"The Cost of Living" (featuring Merle Haggard): The opening bars grab you right away, with a gorgeous mandolin refrain that recalls the spirit of some of Henley's earlier heartland tunes ("The End of the Innocence"). But soon enough, Henley is trading verses and harmonizing with Haggard, who still drips with hardened emotion. He's the perfect choice for these lyrics, about enduring lives aches, pains and downfalls with grace. And that beautiful pedal steel you hear throughout comes from local luminary Milo Deering.
"Waiting Tables": This story song could fit in with some of the country classics you'd find on any decent jukebox. It's about a down-on-her-luck single mom "biding her time until there's somewhere else to go." Two of the backing singers here are Jamey Johnson, who provides the low-end, and Texan Lee Ann Womack, whose high lonesome vocal is equally as crucial.
"When I Stop Dreaming" (featuring Dolly Parton): Speaking of high harmonies, Henley brings in the great Dolly Parton to get vocally intimate on an interpretation of a Louvin Brothers classic. And they do something different with the melody than we've heard done before, letting some of the chorus' lines end in unexpected places. Henley said in a recent interview that he was delighted to force Parton to go higher than her comfort zone allowed. But such discomfort is largely undetectable. It's a master class of crooning.
"Bramble Rose" (featuring Miranda Lambert and Mick Jagger): We end with the hands-down greatest moment of Cass County, which strangely is its first in the order of tracks. Henley, Lambert and Rolling Stones legend Jagger take a verse each on their waltz-tastic cover of a Tift Merritt tune. They all take your breath away in their own styles, but when they blend on those final choruses, well, it's indescribable. You'll have a difficult time moving past it.