Don Henley dishes on Colorado past, new album, state of country music

Don Henley's new country album, "Cass County," marks his first No. 1 solo debut on Billboard's country chart. (Wade Payne / Associated Press)
Don Henley’s new country album, “Cass County,” marks his first No. 1 solo debut on Billboard’s country chart. (Wade Payne / Associated Press)

By John Wenzel

Don Henley’s Colorado history isn’t quite as thick as the one with his home state of Texas, which animates his new album and first solo effort in 15 years, “Cass County.”

But given Henley’s relationship with AEG Live Rocky Mountains president Chuck Morris, who booked his first Boulder gigs more than four decades ago and brings Henley back for a concert at Denver’s Bellco Theatre on Tuesday, Oct. 13, it’s a history that continues to this day.

The patient, mid-tempo Cass County, which last week marked Henley’s first No. 1 solo debut on Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart, gets a boost from a staggering lineup of guests that includes Mick Jagger, Dolly Parton, Merle Haggard, Lucinda Williams, Miranda Lambert, Alison Krauss, Vince Gill and Trisha Yearwood.

As such, it’s easy to see “Cass County” as a showcase of the connections — personal and professional — that Henley has forged since he first stepped onto the national stage as co-founder of the Eagles in 1972. caught up with the 68-year-old Dallas resident over email this week in advance of his Oct. 13 concert to talk about his Colorado past, Cass County, what he’s been listening to lately, the state of music (country and otherwise) and more.

Q: Before we get to the new album, I thought our readers would be interested to hear the story of the Eagles’ first Colorado gigs, which Chuck Morris told me were not incredibly well attended in late 1971. There were the Aspen shows, and then Tulagi’s in Boulder in December. I hear the heat even went out at one of the Boulder shows? Chuck said you guys had to play with gloves to the dozen-or-so people who showed up. Does that sound about right, or is he exaggerating?

A: These stories have been told, time and time again, and my memories of events do not exactly match Chuck’s recollections (which is not unusual). But, I’ll try to give you a brief recap from my perspective. The show at Tulagi’s was basically an audition for British superstar record producer Glyn Johns, who had been asked by our management (Geffen & Roberts) to come and see us perform in the U.S. Why they chose Tulagi’s in Boulder on a snowy December night is still a mystery to me. But Johns duly arrived at the Denver airport and I picked him up in a rental car and drove him to the club in Boulder. The roads were icy and snow was falling. There were about 6 or 7 people in the club and we played a lackluster set with which Mr. Johns was not impressed. The entire plan was wrong from the outset — the place, the timing, all of it. I don’t recall having to wear any gloves, but I know that the circumstances and the atmosphere in general were bleak. Our managers just didn’t have a clue what they were doing and neither did we. The simple fact is that, no matter where we had performed that showcase, it was premature; we simply weren’t ready to make an album. We didn’t have enough original material or enough experience playing together as a band.

Q: What about the Aspen shows?

A: The shows at the Gallery club in Aspen were a somewhat different story. We always packed that place and people danced till the wee hours. At that point, we had a couple of original songs, but mostly we played cover tunes, repeating some of them as many as two or three times a night. But, the locals loved it. There wasn’t much else to do at night in that town, in those days. But, that’s where we began to develop our early sound and our individual roles within the framework of the group, although we still hadn’t developed as songwriters and didn’t have enough original material for an album. After our stint at that club in Aspen, we returned to L.A. to try to develop more material.

Q: Were those shows important to you from a creative standpoint? As Chuck remembers, you flew to London to record the first Eagles album right after that. Did they inform or influence what would come to be regarded as one of the classic musical artifacts of that time period?

A: Sweating out three or four sets a night in front of a blotto crowd in a little club in Aspen was important in terms of simply making us more resilient as a group; it was basically just calisthenics, but it crystallized our realization that we needed to go back to L.A. and create some original material if we were going to make an album. Each of us had already separately spent years in little cover bands, playing sweaty clubs in various parts of the country, so a couple of weeks of “woodshedding” in Aspen was enough. So, we returned to L.A. and continued to rehearse, there, with Glyn Johns checking in on us periodically, but still refusing to produce a record for us until one day he heard us singing four-part harmony, more or less a cappella, or maybe accompanied by one acoustic guitar.

Suddenly, his whole attitude changed. He had finally heard what he wanted to hear, the sound he had been looking for, and not long afterward, we were on our way to London to record our first album with Johns at the helm. Over the next two years (and two albums) this relationship would slowly deteriorate until we abandoned ship in the early stages of the making of our third album, “On the Border.” But, that’s another story that has been told and re-told from several different perspectives, none of them 100 percent accurate.

Q: Cass County is a remarkably modest album in the best possible way. You let the songwriting, the other instrumental players, the guest singers, and the overall vibe shine without forcing yourself to the forefront at every moment. How much of that was by design, and how much of it evolved naturally that way?

A: Most of it was by design, or at least it started out that way. But regardless of how much advance planning is done, it’s inevitable that some things (including writing) just evolve naturally in the studio during the recording process. When you get that many talented musicians and singers together, some magic is bound to happen, so you get inspired and you make things up on the spur of the moment as you go along. That’s one of the most thrilling parts of making a record like this — “spontaneous production” we call it.

Q: Some critics have called this album a return to form, not only for you but for classic country in general, especially in the face of pop-country, “bro”-country, and other genres dominating the charts. Did you feel a duty to respect the integrity of country’s alternately gritty and poetic history?

A: Well, that’s a tricky question because, just like pop and rock, there has always been good country and bad country music Just because something is old doesn’t mean it was necessarily better, just as new stuff isn’t always inferior to what preceded it. The quality of music of all genres has always gone in cycles. It ebbs and flows. There will be periods where there’s more poor quality music than good music, and then that trend will reverse itself. Sometimes, you’ll have a period where the good stuff and the bad stuff are just about equal in amount and they co-exist on the radio and in the marketplace. But, regardless of the types or categories that we tend to put music into, the famed and volatile jazz drummer, Buddy Rich, said that there are only two kinds of music: good and bad. But, of course the judgment of the quality of any kind of music is, to a great degree, subjective.

Don Henley, right, performs at the Americana Music Honors and Awards show in September 2015, in Nashville, Tenn. (Mark Zaleski / Associated Press)  Source: AP
Don Henley, right, performs at the Americana Music Honors and Awards show in September 2015, in Nashville, Tenn. (Mark Zaleski / Associated Press)
Source: AP
All that being said, I think that there are some absolute and time-honored standards that apply — or ought to apply to all types of music — standards having to do with lyric, melody, arrangement, musicianship, production, etc. — and I feel we have a duty, especially in a more traditional form like country to honor those standards, at least to some degree. I’m not saying the envelope can’t be pushed, here and there, but there’s a certain standard of authenticity, quality and integrity that was set a long time ago by some of the greats like Hank Williams, Kitty Wells, Bill Monroe, Patsy Cline, Jim Reeves, Dottie West, Johnny Cash, George Jones, Dolly Parton, Merle Haggard and others. I know that life and culture in this country is changing. It’s becoming less and less rural and more suburban and urban, but that doesn’t mean that the pillars, the foundations of real country music have to be watered down and turned into formulaic pop music that spouts faux country clichés about pickup trucks, dirt roads and beer. I spent my entire adolescence driving trucks (and tractors) on dirt roads and drinking beer. That ain’t new; that was everyday life. There’s a deeper well to draw from than that and some of these young songwriters ought to be dipping that bucket a lot further down into that well than they are today.

Q: You gave a frank, revealing interview with The Guardian recently, which quoted you saying some negative things about Kanye West and Frank Ocean. Having been at this for more than four decades, what kind of line do you walk with the press these days? Is it tough to open up when so many people have an image of you that may or may not match reality?

A: There was a time, not too very long ago, when The Guardian was considered to be one of the more respectable newspapers still published in the English-speaking world. But, now, with the hiring of bottom-feeding tabloid “reporters” such as Paul Lester, one has to wonder if the venerable Guardian hasn’t finally joined the ranks of the U.K.’s other titillating trash purveyors. Mr. Lester got flown over to the U.S. by the record label for a press junket, ostensibly for the purpose of interviewing me about my new album, “Cass County,” which he failed to mention at all until the sixth paragraph of his piece (and even then it was only mentioned once in passing). The rest of his cheesy, innuendo and cliché-ridden piece reads like it was written by a 16-year-old. But I must take my fair share of the blame, here. At this stage of the game, I should have seen this coming, but even at this age, I still have a tendency to believe in people’s stated intent — even so-called journalists. So, I was had. I was suckered. I got lured into the gutter (and I wasn’t even drinking) and my trust and hospitality were rewarded with a trashy piece of writing having little or nothing to do with my new, No. 1 album, Cass County.

Nevertheless, I’m standing by what I said about Frank Ocean and Kanye West. I’m not walking anything back. But, I will say this: It’s very difficult to be in the public eye, especially these days. It’s hard to be a young man or a young woman standing in the often harsh glare of the spotlight in this media age when anything you say or do can instantly circle the globe and come back to bite you in the ass. Fame, especially at a young age, is hard to deal with. It messes with your head and those who aren’t prepared (which is just about everybody) tend to say and do foolish things, either out of ego or insecurity, or some combination of the two. I know, because I’ve been there. In the early days if the Eagles, none of us, even though we’d had years of experience in the “small time,” were prepared for the bewildering rush of the “Big Time.” So, we said and did stupid things. We were arrogant and at the same time full of doubt. We were defensive and mouthy and just trying to make sense of it all — the praise, the harsh judgement, the responsibility, the enormous expectations (our own as well as those of others). So, I get it — I have some degree of empathy for these young guys, but after a while, a little humility and self-examination have got to enter into the learning curve. Otherwise, that spotlight shining in the distance turns out to be a train. Just keep doing the work — good work — that’s all that really matters. If you do good work, then you don’t have to bluster about it. It speaks for itself.

Q: Your best-known music has obviously spoken to its country, folk and rock influences over the years more overtly than blues, R&B, jazz, or other equally American genres. But you have a history with all of them. In saying things like, “We have to go back to the country because this music originated with people who lived in rural America and lived authentic lives,” can’t newer genres (hip-hop, electronic dance music) be just as “authentic” to someone else’s experience?

A: I made that statement in reference to pure country music and the lifestyles that spawned it. Since its founding, the United States has changed from a rural to an urban nation. The most important city, New York, probably contained fewer than 22,000 people at the time of the Revolution. And only one person in 20 lived in a place with a population greater than 2,500 — a size even then hardly considered urban. The course of the 19th century saw the North American landscape literally transformed by urbanization. But so, for that matter, was most of the Western world: compared to Britain, for instance, the United States has always been less urban. Thus while urbanization represents a dramatic change, it would have been far more remarkable for the United States to have stayed rural. As early as 1872 political leaders recognized implicitly that the city had become the main mode of existence, when they made Yellowstone the country’s first national park, setting an early precedent for preserving uncultivated, nonurban areas for future, urban generations. The urban transformation of the United States is mainly remarkable in that it constructed so many new cities, while in Britain the process was much more one of expanding preexisting places.

So, what I was talking about in that Rolling Stone interview was the history and evolution of this nation, dating from the mid-to-late 1700s up to 1930; the transition from a primarily rural agricultural population to a metropolitan one, and the cultural changes, including the effects on the music of both blacks and whites, that developed in tandem with that migration from country to city. With all due respect, I think that the point I was making about authenticity vis-à-vis the genesis and transformations of American country, gospel and blues music has a little more historical depth and breadth than whether one can have an “authentic” life experience based around hip-hop or EDM (both of which have existed for about five minutes in the larger cultural scheme of things). But if the young people who are immersed in those sub genres can lay claim to an “authentic” experience, then I say “more power to ’em,” but that’s got little to do with what I was getting at in the Rolling Stone interview. I was speaking about anthropology over the long course of history, not recent trends or fads. There are, I suppose, various kinds of authenticity, but I’m not going to get caught up in some pointless debate about the degrees or merits of them, especially here in this age of relativism. Just suffice it to say that we’re talking apples and oranges, here.

Q: Along those lines, what are you encouraged by in music right now? Who are you looking to in terms of authentic voices, acts that build upon the work of the past, etc.? Where’s the neo-classic-country swing coming from?

A: I think that Ray Benson (Asleep at the Wheel) is still the leading proponent of neo-classic country swing. The man has high standards and always works with quality musicians. His shows are consistently great and always respectful of the foundations upon which they are built. As for budding singer-songwriters — artists in both the country and Americana categories — there is great cause for optimism. There are young people out there — some of them still relatively obscure — who are making thoughtful, authentic music — Jason Isbell, Jeffrey Foucault, Ashley Monroe, Jamey Johnson, J.P. Harris & the Tough Choices, Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats, Sturgill Simpson, Andrew Combs, Cale Tyson, Kelsey Waldon, the duos Striking Matches, The Milk Carton Kids, Shovels & Rope and others. Of course, they’ll not all enter “the mainstream,” but they will provide important standards that always need to be there to remind both the artist community and the industry that promotes it what quality and authenticity are. Otherwise, music spirals into a down cycle.

Q: How has age changed your perspective on the machinery, promises, and pitfalls of being a live performer? I know the drugs, wild partying, etc. are a thing of the past, but what’s your current philosophy about bringing your music directly to audiences? What do you still get out of getting on stage?

A: Forty years have elapsed, I have a wife, four wonderful children and a thriving career at age 68 — and still interviewers are compelled to bring up the very tired and overblown subject of drugs and wild partying, which, by the way, were a part of the life and behavior of EVERY band from that era. So, unless you want to rephrase it in a more respectful and relevant way, I’m skipping this question.

Q: Home and your sense of place ripple strongly throughout this album. What does Texas offer that other places can’t, besides perhaps your obvious history with the state?

A: Texas is my home, but it is, and always has been, a mixed bag for me. I feel love and loyalty toward it and yet am repulsed by some of the traits and traditions of the state, the politics in particular. But when it comes to art, particularly music, Texas has a deep, rich history and present that I feel very proud to be a part of. The sheer size of the state encompasses many cultures and ethnicities which has created a fertile and diverse musical landscape. You can find groups who have steadfastly preserved the musical traditions of their European ancestors; same goes for the Latino and Native American cultures. In Texas you can find craftsmen who make fine instruments of all kinds. There are small groups who specialize in early American instruments like the Hammered Dulcimer — both the crafting and the playing of them. Texas is chock full of contradictions and surprises. But, what I love most, I think, is the space, the expanse, the big sky. Oh, and the barbecue can’t be beat — anywhere on planet Earth. is The Denver Post’s music blog.

Comments are closed.