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THE BOY OF AUTUMN

There’s a delicious irony at the heart of Cass County (Capitol), Don Henley’s first album of country music. The veteran writer/artist, whose work with the Eagles had a profound influence on modern-day country, has made an album with A-list Nashville musicians that is far more purely country in sound, sentiment and character than anything coming out of Music City’s song factories these days. In other words, the guy who more than anyone put the rock in country has made a record that restores the wayward genre to its rustic essence—what Gram Parsons famously labeled Cosmic American Music. And Henley’s no West Coast carpetbagger; on the contrary, this album documents a boy from rural Texas returning to his roots.

Cass County, which debuted at #1 last week—giving Henley the first chart-topper of his long career, believe it or not—has been universally embraced by critics. In his four-star lead review in Rolling Stone, David Fricke describes the album as “meticulously crafted, sharply written and absolutely free of neo-country additives like reheated ’70s-rock bombast and Twitter-verse vernacular.”

When a respected artist releases an album that generates both sales and raves, it’s a surefire recipe for Grammy love, according to no less an expert than HITSPaul Grein, who gives the LP a shot at an Album of the Year nomination in his latest “Grein on Grammys” essay. “This would be Henley’s fourth Album of the Year nomination. (He scored his first two with the Eagles.) There is some resistance to non-country artists releasing country albums... The difference is that Eagles played a huge role in shaping modern country. What’s more, if both [Sam Hunt’s] Montevallo and Cass County make the finals, it will mark the first time in Grammy history that two country albums have received Album of the Year noms in the same year.”

Such a scenario would be ironic as well, in the sense that it’s country artist Hunt who’s pushing the stylistic envelope while rock artist Henley is reverently honoring country’s heritage. But in a sense, Henley is doing what he’s always done. He’s a meticulous craftsman with an elevated gift for poetically concise storytelling and character studies.

“What I try to do is chronicle complex events with vernacular, which is difficult,” he told me in 1986, on the heels of releasing his classic second solo album, Building the Perfect Beast, which contains “The Boys of Summer,” his signature song. “The songwriting process still mystifies me. When I finish a song, I really don't know how I've gotten from the beginning to the end of it. This has been said before, and it sounds a little cosmic, but it comes literally out of the air somewhere, it comes through me, and it comes from my subconscious a lot. I have to open myself up so that it can flow. My life and my mind get very cluttered sometimes with all the stuff that's going on around me, and it's difficult to shut off what they call the ‘monkey-mind’ in Zen. I have a lot of monkey-mind and brain chatter. I read a lot of things, I file them away back there, and things come out years later that I don't remember where they come from. I'm very grateful when I finish a song. Some writer said once, ‘I hate writing, but I love having written.’

“Somebody called me ‘a modern-day Will Rogers,’” Henley then noted—and that characterization perfectly applies to Cass County, which is loaded with subtly embedded stabs of sociopolitical commentary, from the blue-collar woes that play out in “Waiting Tables” to the environmental activism that lurks in the hardscrabble textures of “Praying for Rain.” More pointedly, Henley has dedicated “Too Much Pride” to Donald Trump. Among active artists, only Randy Newman, whom Henley has cited as among his primary inspirations, is capable of such incisive, compassionate and musically sophisticated portrayals of present-day realities. And behind it all is that unmistakable voice, with its conjoined gravitas and grit, bringing a singular soulfulness to these songs, in the time-honored tradition of Hank Williams, George Jones and Merle Haggard.

Like Grein, I’m “going out on a limb” and giving Henley that fifth Album of the Year nomination. Cass County is the work of a master singer/songwriter at the top of his game; it reanimates the adage, you can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy (in the long run). 

Photos by Danny Clinch.

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