It may have been 15 years since Don Henley released his last solo album, but the Eagles singer, songwriter, and drummer proves he's still got the juice — musically, lyrically, vocally, and professionally — on the splendid, country-kissed "Cass County." Having spent the last few years on the road with the classic rock band has not dampened the power and nuance of his familiar rasp, nor his ability to slice to the bone with couplets both potent and poignant.
Recording largely in Nashville, Henley co-produced and co-wrote much of the album with buddy Stan Lynch, former drummer for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. The pair deftly balance Henley's originals with a clutch of vintage country covers, making evident the link between the artist and his roots.
Henley also invited a whole bunch of friends into the studio to serve as duet partners, harmony vocalists, and instrumentalists. A Hollywood casting director couldn't have placed those guests more perfectly within the framework of an album that spans a stylistic spectrum from evocations of the Eagles and Henley's previous solo albums (particularly "The End of the Innocence") to the sounds that originally inspired him growing up in Texas.
The mighty Merle Haggard graces the melodically rich "The Cost of Living" with his lived-in baritone. Miranda Lambert and Mick Jagger lend their inimitable vocals — and in Jagger's case some sweet blues harp — to a stirring take of Tift Merritt's "Bramble Rose." Salt and sugar combine for chill-inducing results when Dolly Parton joins Henley for the Louvin Brothers heartbreaker "When I Stop Dreaming."
Elsewhere, exquisite harmonies are supplied by individual singers and mini-choirs comprising insane all-star combinations of artists like Alison Krauss, Vince Gill, Lucinda Williams, Martina McBride, Jamey Johnson, and former duet partner Trisha Yearwood.
But while the contributors are many, "Cass County" is a Henley vision down to its bones. Whether he is weaving a delicate story song, as on "Waiting Tables" — an achingly perfect "Last Picture Show"-esque tale of the bittersweet yearning that can accompany a small-town life not playing out as hoped — or getting his considerable dander up about the sorry state of modern political discourse on the enjoyably cranky "No, Thank You," which includes a sly reference to the Eagles hit "Take it Easy," Henley gets to the heart of the matter.
ESSENTIAL "The Cost of Living"