Since the moment Don Henley announced that he was making a country album, much of the country music community has been wondering if, and even assuming that, this album would be another country album by a rocker seeking some cash and attention–Steven Tyler anyone? I never wondered about this; Don Henley has no reason to make a country album other than genuinely wanting to make a country album. And now that Cass County has arrived, it’s proven that this isn’t just another rocker looking to exploit the country format, this is a true country album by an artist with obvious love and respect for the genre’s roots and tradition. In short, Don Henley lived up to my expectations with this record, and if you had reservations, I’m here to tell you you needn’t have worried.
Let me say I am reviewing the deluxe version, which is important because some of the songs are not in the same order on the main version. I will state which songs are not on Cass County, but it’s important to know that the ones that are might not be in the same place on the album.
The album opens with “Bramble Rose,” and right away, you can tell this is traditional country, with steel guitar making a grand appearance on the opening beat. This is about a woman whose love has “grown as sharp as a bramble rose.” It’s a nice opener–also, it features Mick Jagger and Miranda Lambert, making perhaps the most unlikely musical threesome I have ever heard. I come away from it more impressed by Miranda Lambert’s vocals than I have ever been–and this from one of the biggest Miranda Lambert fans you’ll ever meet–and wondering what Mick Jagger would sound like in country. Don Henley has several duets on this album, and this is something common to all; all the singers sound their best. It’s like Don brings out something in them that they don’t try to bring out themselves, like he believes in them more than they do. Speaking of duets, the album’s impressive lineup continues with “The Cost of Living,” a duet with none other than Merle Haggard–yes, the guy that just critiqued all modern country, so there’s an endorsement for this album in his name alone. The song itself is about living with the hand you are dealt and not letting life’s troubles get you down; “It’s the cost of living, and everyone pays.” I now want a Don Henley and Merle Haggard duets album, as this sounded better vocally than anything on the already great
Django and Jimmie.
“No, Thank You,” is a fun little country rock song saying “no, thank you” to, well, pretty much everything that is “too good to be true” because he’s “been there, done that.” “Waiting Tables” displays excellent country storytelling, as we learn about the life of a 23-year-old single mom who works as a waitress and hopes for better days. “Take a Picture of This” tells another great story, this time of a married couple who captured their life in pictures, but now they are getting divorced after many years together. “Too Far Gone,” only featured on the deluxe version, is a traditional country song rife with piano and steel. It’s about a man who knows his woman loves someone else, but he is “too far gone” to accept this. Don Henley really captures the emotion in this song and makes it one of the better tracks on a great album.
“That Old Flame,” the first song released from the album, has more of a country rock feel and features the always remarkable Martina McBride. The two sing about reconnecting with an old flame and wondering if they miss each other or simply their youth. “There is danger in the embers, you have only yourself to blame, if you get burned and try to rekindle that old flame”–this is just good songwriting, and this song is simply catchy. “The Brand New Tenessee Waltz,” only on this version, goes back to traditional country and features some of the best instrumentation on the album, including a nice fiddle appearance. “Words Can Break Your Heart” is next, a song about just that, a relationship being torn apart by harsh words. I especially love the line, “It only takes a breath or two to tear your world apart.” The cover of “When I Stop Dreaming,” featuring Dolly Parton, is one of the best songs of the whole bunch and one that I will post here. Dolly Parton sounds better than she has in years, and I’m pretty sure she hasn’t hit that high note in a long while. If anyone had any doubts about this album being real country, this song should shatter them in about 2.6 seconds.
“Praying For Rain” is next, and here is where Don Henley’s vocals shine most. I have talked about the other singers, but it’s important to know that Henley himself put a lot of effort into this, and I hear it most in this song–this is where Don Henley takes Jason Aldean’s “Amarillo Sky” and shows Aldean how to sing it correctly. The next two tracks are only found on this version. The first is a simple little song called “Too Much Pride,” about the dangers of this, and the next is a nice cover of “She Sang Hymns out of Tune,” which is probably the only song I could do without, and that’s only because I am not a fan of the song; Henley certainly does it well, though. “Train in the Distance” sees the narrator looking back on his youth and reflecting on his dreams. It’s one I can’t really explain, and you need to hear it to really appreciate it. “A Younger Man” is one of my favorites; here, the narrator is singing to a woman who is in love with him, but he tells her “You’re looking for a younger man, not me.” Apparently, she’s an “angel from the future,” while he is “an old devil from the past.” This is really a standout on an already great album. The album concludes with “Where I Am Now,” a great rocking track after all the seriousness of the last two songs. It’s an excellent way to close this album–and both versions close with it, so obviously Don Henley agrees.
okay, Cass County is a very good album, and all of you who thought Don Henley came to country for the wrong reasons should be pleasantly surprised. I highly recommend this album for traditional and contemporary fans alike–the majority is more traditional, but there are nice country rock tracks too. In fact, I’ll post one of each. Cass County is definitely worth checking out!