Don Henley doesn’t move fast because he can afford not to hurry. He can spend the better part of a decade waiting out a record contract, labour on a 90-minute Eagles reunion for maybe half a decade, then take another eight years before returning with Cass County, his first solo album in 15 years and only fifth overall. That’s the mark of a man who takes his time, but all that chronology pales compared to the true journey Cass County represents: a return to Henley’s country roots, whether they lie in the blissed-out, mellow sunshine of Southern California or the Texas home that provides this record with its name. According to pre-release gossip, the album began as a covers project – on the deluxe edition, there are remnants of this record, including a poignant “She Sang Hymns Out of Tune” and a duet with Dolly Parton on the Louvin Brothers’ “When I Stop Dreaming” – and the album does begin with a version of Tift Merritt’s “Bramble Rose” that finds space for both Mick Jagger and Miranda Lambert, a sign of the star fire-power on Cass County. Plenty of other guests pop up here, including Merle Haggard and Martina McBride, although there’s no doubting Henley is the centre of Cass County, but the nice thing about the record is that he’s not calling attention to himself, not in the way he did when he loaded up albums with sombre six-minute anthems. For the first time in decades – four, to be precise; One of These Nights was the last time he explicitly dabbled in country-rock – Henley prefers to paint on a small canvas, abandoning sociological epics for tales of longing and heartbreak. He’ll still adopt a cynical sneer – “No, Thank You” is quintessential spiteful contrarian-ism, salvaged by a boogie borrowed from “Achy Breaky Heart” – and “Praying for Rain” disguises its environmental activist heart in the form of sun-bleached hippie country, but the shift to expertly constructed miniatures benefits Henley considerably, pushing the focus onto his skill as a craftsman while also suggesting how, in the age of bro-country, this kind of cosmic American music functions as a traditional throwback. This is also where Don Henley’s stubbornness winds up as an asset: he doesn’t feel like he’s succumbing to either nostalgia or the present; he stoically carries on according to the way things ought to be, and, against all odds, he winds up with a record that’s not only easier to enjoy than most of his solo records, but also stronger song for song than many of the early Eagles albums.
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