Don Henley Discusses Career, “Cass County” and Merle Haggard at Americana Festival
Don Henley’s contributions to the music world are indisputable. At the Americana Music Awards last night (Sept. 16), the founding member of the Eagles and solo artist received the Americana Music Association’s Lifetime Achievement Trailblazer Award. Today, Don shared his musical journey with an audience at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum during an interview with musician and teacher Warren Zanes.
Throughout the hour-long discussion, Don shared his views on the music industry and country music as well as stories of meeting some artists he admires such as Kenny Rogers, Dolly Parton and Merle Haggard, who joins him in a duet on his forthcoming solo album, Cass County, out Sept. 25. Cass County, named after the area where he grew up in Texas, is his first solo release in 15 years and includes duets with Merle, Martina McBride, Miranda Lambert, Dolly Parton and Mick Jagger. It is this process of collaboration that Don says is the most enjoyable part of making a record.
“It’s like casting a movie,” he says of selecting artists to sing with. “You get the material written and you go, ‘OK, who would be the right person to act out this part?’ Singing in some ways is like acting: you become the character and you make the character real and believable.”
Don says he wrote the song “Cost of Living” with Merle in mind. A fan of Merle, Don confessed that the Hag’s album The Way I Am was a big influence on him.
“I think that was some of his finest work. So when we wrote that song I had him in my head,” he said of “Cost of Living.” “Sometimes when you can hear somebody’s voice sing, it helps you write the song. I could hear Merle singing that song.”
He then told the tale of the first time he met Merle several years ago at a theater in his hometown in Texas, a show Don helped get the funding for Merle to do. After the show, he visited with the singer on his bus, where he joked that he made his “way through the cloud.”
“We’re sitting around and they were trying to explain to Merle who I was and he didn’t have a clue, which I thought was charming,” he recalled with a laugh. “We sat there, me and some of the local boys, bus driver and manager. Merle’s sitting there and talking for a while and he looks up and says, ‘What are y’all trying to do, some tribute Eagles thing or something?’ They had to explain to him that, ‘No, this guy is actually one of them.'”
Flash forward years later: Don sent his song to Merle’s bus driver, who forwarded it to Merle—who would later agree to sing on it.
“One of my lifetime dreams was to sing with him,” Don said, “and so I got to do it.”
While Don admitted that his musical education came from listening to the radio as a kid, he got some real-life schooling from Kenny Rogers early on that he says has stayed with him: “Son, always be nice to people you meet on the way up because you’re going to meet those same people on the way back down.”
It is this advice that he has taken to heart, he said before beginning to explain his thought process for his latest album. Don said that his intent of making his new country project was to curate the best music from the past and add his own twist to it with the songs he wrote.
“I think tradition, especially in country music, is a very important thing. We need to preserve the best of the best and build upon it,” he stressed. “I think we should bring a little bit of modernism into the picture. It’s like architecture. Music needs to retain the connection to the land and the people who first did it. The music suffers and the culture suffers when we don’t look back and know our history.”
And with that, he explained why he decided to buck the current Nashville trend of making music and co-writing with certain A-list musicians and writers for Cass County.
“No bad intent intended,” he said, pausing. “But I don’t want to do the factory thing and the songwriting thing here. I think I’m perfectly capable of writing. I think I have a track record. . . . To be successful in the music business I had to leave my hometown, but oddly enough I go back there to write.”
Don Henley’s Cass County will be available on Sept. 25.