Don Henley: The CMT.com Interview

Legendary Musician Talks About East Texas and Cass County

“I want to make it clear to people that it’s not some walk down Memory Lane by some old fart who’s trying to recapture his youth,” Don Henley says of his just-released album, Cass County. “I’m just trying to take the best of what was there and build upon it. I’m trying to explore the idea of place.”

A founding member of the Eagles, Henley grew up in Linden, the county seat of Cass County in East Texas. And while Cass County is best described as a Don Henley album, his first solo project in 15 years is being hailed by the media as a country album.

The truth is that the opening track, a cover of Tift Merritt’s “Bramble Rose,” has more steel guitar on it than the vast majority of records being made in Nashville these days. It features vocals by another East Texan (Miranda Lambert) and a guy from another country altogether (Mick Jagger).

With most of the sessions taking place in Nashville and Dallas, the album also includes guest appearances by Merle Haggard, Dolly Parton, Martina McBride, Trisha Yearwood, Jamey Johnson, Alison Krauss and Vince Gill, along with Martie Maguire and Emily Robison of the Dixie Chicks and Court Yard Hounds.

At age 68, Henley’s work ethic is as strong as ever. To promote the new album, he’s done numerous interviews and made appearances on CBS Sunday Morning and The Late Show With Stephen Colbert and taped a performance for an episode of Austin City Limits to air Nov. 21. On Saturday (Oct. 3), he launches a solo tour in Phoenix.

Having spent my own youth in that geographic region known to locals as the Ark-La-Tex, I was particularly curious to hear Henley’s recollections of life in Linden’s slow lane in the 1960s and how it influenced his new album.

CMT: AM radio was still a huge musical force in the ‘60s. What radio stations were you listening to as a kid?

I was listening to KEEL in Shreveport, Louisiana. In fact, there was a DJ who called himself Gene Kent. … We used to go down to Shreveport and play his little battles of the bands. The local TV station there would film them and broadcast them. We met him, and he sort of became a mentor or a manager-type for a while, but then we lost track of him.

You must have gone to rock concerts in Shreveport.

Henley: I saw Jimi Hendrix at the Shreveport Municipal Auditorium. And I saw the Byrds there, too. It was a strange bill. It was the Byrds and Herman’s Hermits and that group called the Barbarians … and Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels.

Most of those shows were in like, 1968, I believe, so I was already 21, so I went. I saw Zeppelin in Dallas, but Shreveport was a very seminal place for me. I saw concerts there, and I also bought records at Stan’s Record Shop on Texas Street.

KEEL radio played the Stones and the Beatles, but I also remember them playing Buck Owens‘ “Tiger by the Tail,” the Stax and Motown stuff and Dean Martin.

That was radio back then. There was so much more diversity on the radio back then. You could hear all sorts of music on one channel. Now they put everything into little boxes. You only listen to one kind of thing. You never get exposed to different kinds of music because you’re tuned in to one thing.

I also listened to a radio station out of New Orleans called WNOE. We could get that at night. We’d get KOMA from Oklahoma and WLAC in Nashville with John R. Once in a while, we could get Wolfman Jack broadcasting right across the Mexican border in Del Rio. Radio was like a magic carpet for me, and I fell fortunate that I got to hear so many different styles of music, there in that lonesome little East Texas town. It fired my imagination.

Society and technology have changed so much since then. The locally-owned restaurants in those small towns were a gathering place for the community, but most of those places aren’t there anymore. Sometimes I’m concerned about what America has lost.

I believe what you’re talking about is a cultural-wide problem of putting everything into little boxes and formatting everything. I mean, certainly it’s happened at radio. I may be cutting my own throat here, but I’ve got to say it: The formatting of radio, I think, was a bad thing. Because, again, it limits what people hear. It doesn’t broaden their palate or expand their taste or expose them to new and different things. And it’s not a good thing.

The same you’re talking about with restaurants. Everything is specialization now. You go to this restaurant to get this. You got to that restaurant to get that. Politics and talk radio, you only tune in to things you want to hear. You tune in to a station that’s preaching to the choir. You do not get exposed to new ideas or ideas that may be opposed to your own.

Modern technology is a wonderful thing. The Internet is a wonderful thing. But there’s a dark side. All of this compartmentalization and this specialization, I think, is serving to narrow the things that we get exposed to. I think people ought to be exposed to all kinds of music. … You can hear it in today’s songwriting. It’s not built on a broad foundation. It’s built on a very narrow foundation.

Or, as I say, “Can you at least give me a hook once in a while?”

Yeah, something I can hum. Something I can wake up humming to? And I think we’re losing that connection with the past. My album is not a walk down nostalgia lane, but I’m trying to build on the best traditions and curate those traditions. I want to be a curator of the finest and best traditions of American music.

American music is an extremely important cultural export. It’s one of the greatest things we make and export in this country. It crosses political boundaries, geographical boundaries, ethnic boundaries, and it brings people together. And I think we’re losing some of the richness and the diversity in our music. Of course, if you want to go on satellite radio — and I love satellite radio — and you can punch all your favorite stations and tune in to these specialized little niche channels.

I have about 10 of them stored.

Me, too. About 10 of them. But I loved it so much better in the day when you could keep it on the same station and hear the Beatles one minute and Wilson Pickett the next minute and Engelbert Humperdinck the next minute.

Kenny Rogers is responsible for you and your bandmates traveling to Los Angeles for the first time. How did you meet him?

Kenny is a Texas boy. He was raised in Crockett, which is near Houston, and went to Houston to start his musical career with the Bobby Doyle Trio. My little band from Linden played a lot in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. Between 1965 and 1969, we wore out two Ford Econoline vans driving all over Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas and Oklahoma … playing everything from frat parties to debutante balls to sleazy nightclubs to Knights of Columbus halls. You name it, we played it.

We lived in Dallas, off and on. We’d periodically move out there. We lived there in the fall of ’67 and, I think, the spring of ’68. We were in a clothing boutique on McKinney Avenue, looking at bell bottom pants and Nehru jackets. There was a beautiful girl working in there at the time. … Kenny was in there and, I think, hitting on her. He was in town to play with the First Edition. That’s when they had “Just Dropped In.”

He was just in there. One of the boys in the band — it wasn’t me — but one of the nervier kids in the band just walked right up to him and introduced himself and said, “Hi, this is my band, and we’re playing at a club here in Dallas. Would you like to come hear us?” Kenny said, “Actually, I’m looking for bands to produce.” He came out to the club and heard us play. I guess he liked what he heard, because he gave us his contact information. He said, “I’m really busy right now with this record. But when things slow down a little bit — and you guys have a chance — maybe you can come out to Los Angeles and we’ll cut some tracks and I’ll produce them.”

A year went by. We kept in touch with him by phone. Eventually, he said, “OK, come on out.’ We went out in February of 1970.

You have to realize it was a pretty big deal for five country boys from a town of 2,400 people getting in two cars with a little trailer and driving from Cass County all the way to Los Angeles knowing only one person there.

We had lived in Dallas off and on, but that wasn’t a preparation for the sprawl of Los Angeles. It was a bit romantic. I remember after we pulled in at night, one of the first things we saw was the Capitol Records Tower — which is really ironic now because that’s the label I’m on. We went, “Wow, that’s where the Beatles are signed, and Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole. The Beach Boys record for Capitol.”

So your band, then named Shiloh, released a single and then an album for Amos Records.

Of course, nothing happened. We were really green as songwriters. We were not prepared to write songs at that point in time. Kenny did the best he could with what he had to work with. But we were not accomplished songwriters at all, and the group’s singing wasn’t that great, either.

But the upside of all of that was that it got us to Los Angeles and we somehow managed to remain there. Kenny’s wife at the time — he’s had several of them — sort of became our manager/booking agent. She’d get us occasional gigs out in the Valley or down in some of the beach communities. We made enough money to scrape by and live on.

Most people think of you as an L.A. guy, but it seems like Linden and Cass County still define who you are.

They do. I mean, I did absorb a lot of L.A. I lived there for 24 years, but my roots are in Texas, and I’ve always maintained contact with my hometown. I go back there frequently. I have a home there. When my mother passed away in 2003, I kept her home. I take my kids there for time in the country. They’ve grown up mostly in Dallas. I have a 200-acre farm in Cass County. I’m deeply involved in civic affairs, restoration of buildings around the courthouse square, restoration of the courthouse itself. We have the oldest continuously operated courthouse in the state of Texas. It predates the Civil War.

But it’s sad. It’s like a lot of little towns. It’s just fading. There’s several reasons. They built a bypass so most traffic doesn’t go through downtown anymore. And then there’s the change in the nature of retail with the big-box stores. All the good old boys who came home from World War II and really made that town tick are dead now and their offspring moved off to other places to seek more opportunity. So the town is just languishing.

When did you start working on the Cass County project?

I think 2009 or 2010. I had to do it between Eagles tours. And I have three teenagers at home, who are very important to me. I wanted to be a good father, so I just worked on this album in my spare time in between Eagles tours, in between parenting. … The album’s been finished for over a year now. But because of the Eagles tours, I didn’t have a chance to get out and promote it.

Of the guests on the album, which ones did you know?

I knew Trisha Yearwood, of course. We’ve been good friends for a long time. I knew Emily and Martie of the Dixie Chicks. I’d met Mick Jagger two or three times but couldn’t really say that I know him. I had met Dolly once a long, long time ago. I’d never met Miranda. I’d met Merle when we got him to come to Linden to play a few years back.

Your original songs on the album have small town themes. It seems like there are two types of people — those who never seriously think about leaving their small town and others who can’t wait to leave.

Well, I was one of those people who couldn’t wait to get out. And some people get out, and some people come back. … There were a lot of people with dreams — dreams that didn’t necessarily work out. Again, I have to thank Kenny. I don’t know if we would have ever gotten up the nerve to pick up and leave home without his encouragement.

What happened immediately after you and your band arrived in L.A.?

We hung around out there for about a year, making that album and trying to promote it, and then it just all started to fall apart. I’m an introvert, at heart, but I had read the music magazines and knew where all the hip places were. I knew the Troubadour was more or less the center of the musical universe, so I started hanging out there. … And I got out and mingled at the Troubadour bar and tried to make friends and connections and find my way. That’s how I met Glenn (Frey) and J.D. (Souther) and John Boylan, who was Linda Ronstadt‘s manager. That’s how I got the job with Linda. And one thing led to another.

I only got to hear Ronstadt perform live twice, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard a greater voice.

There hasn’t been a greater voice than her voice. And I’m so sorry that it’s silenced, but she’s still doing some speaking engagements at colleges.

You have Dolly Parton singing with you on the Louvin Brothers’ “When I Stop Dreaming.”

When I was young, my dad’s auto parts store was not in my hometown. It was 21 miles away in one of the next towns over — Dangerfield, Texas. My dad’s parents lived in Dangerfield, so I would go to work with him and hang out at my grandmother’s house. It was just fun. Later on, I worked for my dad at the store, and we would listen to KWKH in Shreveport, which was the home of the Louisiana Hayride. I’m sure that’s where I heard “When I Stop Dreaming” for the first time. I looked it up, and that song was first published in 1955. It’s been recorded by dozens of people, but I know that I probably heard it listening to the radio with my dad. I always loved the song.


I was happy to see that you’d covered Jesse Winchester’s “Brand New Tennessee Waltz.”

I had the pleasure of meeting him and talking to him for a while one time, probably in ’74 or ’75. … He was a brilliant songwriter, and I loved his voice. He passed away last year, so I thought as a little thing to keep his memory alive, I would record that song.

When I heard “She Sang Hymns Out of Tune,” I was trying to remember the original version. I think Harry Nilsson recorded it on one of his albums.

Harry Nilsson did do a version of it, but I think the Dillards did it first. That first album — the Dillards’ album called Wheatstraw Suite, which came out in 1968 — was as a very influential album in my life … as was Jesse Winchester’s first album. I was a big fan of the Dillards. In fact, I drove through a snowstorm to hear them play in Fort Worth back in 1968. … I just thought it was the most interesting song and they were an interesting band.

That song was written by Jesse Lee Kincaid. What’s his story?

He’s a relatively obscure songwriter and folk singer. He lives, I understand, in the San Francisco Bay area. … I’ve never met the man, but I think Jesse Colin Young from the Youngbloods might have covered the song. It was always around, but obscure. Always obscure. I just loved the Dillards’ version of it so much and loved the song so much.

I got a call from my manager’s office a few weeks ago saying, “Jesse Kincaid heard you have recorded or are going to record his song, and he wants you to know he’s rewritten the lyrics. He’s wondering if it it’s too late.” And I’m thinking, “Yeah, it’s about a year too late. And I like the lyrics just the way they are.” I mean, I know that the choruses end with the word “are,” but I don’t care. It’s a wonderful, mystical song.

But those songs, along with “When I Stop Dreaming,” sort of trace my history up through the decades. Those are songs that really struck me. “Too Far Gone” by Billy Sherrill is another one.

You met Merle Haggard a few years ago when he played at the Music City Texas Theater in Linden, and you had him in mind when you wrote “The Cost of Living” for the new album.

Merle’s early stuff is great, but the songs that had the biggest influence on me from Merle’s career was the stuff he did in the ’80s, like “The Way I Am” and “Life’s Just Not the Way It Used to Be.” I played those songs over and over and over again. And I heard them in my head when I was writing “The Cost of Living” and I was hearing his voice singing on the song. I was so thrilled when he agreed to sing on it. He liked the song and said, “That sounds like something I’d do.” And I’m like, “Yeah, there’s a reason for that.”

I probably shouldn’t say this, but I wasn’t particularly looking forward to doing this interview because of all the stories I’ve heard through the years about you getting pissed off about various things. But when I look back to the stories I have firsthand knowledge about, I have to say that you had a legitimate complaint about something that happened, and it all began with you being in the right.

I suppose I have that reputation, in some quarters, but people who actually know me don’t feel that way. … I don’t suffer fools gladly, I’ll tell you that. Especially when I get in a room with someone who starts asking me stupid questions that have been asked a hundred million times.

I hope I haven’t done that.

No, no, no. This is fine. I don’t have much patience with morning DJs. But I’m not that guy, you know, that people think I am. … Whatever.

You’re a guy from East Texas.

I have such a normal life, you wouldn’t believe it. I go to the supermarket and push the cart around. I get the cars gassed up for the weekend. I drive my kids to school. I cook breakfast. I do a little gardening.

During you interview at the Country Music Hall of Fame, you talked about architecture and whether specific buildings look like they belong on a certain piece of land. And I immediately thought, “Welcome to Nashville.”

Welcome to everywhere. … I maintain that local governments — city councils and planning departments — are the absolute worst. I’ve had a lot of experience with planning departments in Texas and California. They just don’t have any aesthetic sensibilities whatsoever. They just don’t give a shit.

It’s just like Austin. They’ve gentrified all the soul out of Austin. They’re just ruining all these towns. They’re destroying the historical buildings. A town’s got to have dives. The same thing in L.A. They’ve ruined the shit out of Sunset Boulevard, you ought to see what’s going on out there. It’s unreal.

There are similarities between what’s happening to cities and what’s happening in music — the undermining and the destruction of history and our roots. The foundations of our past that need to be preserved and brought forward. It’s shameful. It’s really shameful. Somebody has got to curate this stuff, and there are not enough of us doing this.

Randy Travis, bless his heart, I hope he’s able to sing again someday because he has one of the finest and most authentic voices. That’s what I looked for on this album with all those singers — people who have authentic voices. People who have done some living. When Dolly Parton opens her mouth, you can hear those mountains. You can hear those people and the suffering and the hardship. You can hear the love and the compassion — all in in her voice. …

Place is important. The place you come from, the place you are now. And the people who inhabit those places and who made places what they are. I realize that my hometown, the landscape is still sort of the same, although they’ve cut down a lot of the hardwoods and planted pine plantations. … But I realize that a lot of what I remember are the people who aren’t there anymore. The buildings are there, but the people who made those buildings come alive are gone. And that’s a little bit sad, but I’m still trying to figure out what this place called home means.

Calvin Gilbert has served as CMT.com’s managing editor since 2002. His background includes stints at the Nashville Banner, Radio & Records and Westwood One.