STORY WRITTEN BY GARY GRAFF
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Don Henley doesn’t feel like it’s been 15 years between solo albums.
“It felt like about 10 minutes,” says the Eagles co-founder, who released “Cass County,” his first new album since 2000’s “Inside Job,” to a career-high No. 3 debut on the Billboard 200 and No. 1 on the Country Albums chart, in September.
He has the Eagles to thank for that, of course. The group has been touring steadily since its reunion in 1994, and intensively with the two-year History of The Eagles tour that wrapped up in July. That’s limited Henley’s ability to get back to his own work, though he notes that “Cass County” “has been done for a couple of years now, but I didn’t have time to promote the thing.
“Since my last album came out this promotion thing has become a whole new ballgame,” Henley, 68, explains by phone from Los Angeles. “The haystack has become so huge that finding the needle is an enormous job now, with social media and all of that. It’s a challenge.”
The reaction to the album, of course, has indicated that fans found it worth the wait.
“Cass County” travels a different musical path than the stylized rock Henley has made on its four predecessors, including multi-platinum efforts such as 1985’s “Building the Perfect Beast” and “The End of the Innocence.” The 12-track set — which features guest collaborations with Mick Jagger, Dolly Parton, Merle Haggard, Miranda Lambert, Martina Mcbride and Trisha Yearwood — embraces the country roots the Eagles have mined so successfully over the years, and most importantly were part of Henley’s upbringing in east Texas, where he and his father listened to the “Louisiana Hayride” program airing from KWKH in nearby Shreveport. It’s not strictly a country album per se, but that’s certainly a significant part of the mix this time out.
“There’s been a lot of discussion trying to figure out what categories to put it in,” Henley acknowledges. “There’s been a lot of argument back and forth — ‘Well, is it a country album? Is it an Americana album? Is it a pop album? What is it?’
“The fact is it’s all those things. It leans heavily country, of course; there’s pedal steel guitar on a lot of the cuts. But I don’t like to put things in boxes. It’s just an American music album.”
Fans, fortunately, seem to be getting it, according to Henley, especially as he’s trooped the music out on the road.
“The audiences have been very respectful,” he notes. “That’s one good thing about being an older guy, I guess; they sit there and they’ve been very receptive. We play, I guess, 11 or 12 of the new songs during the set, and as long as we mix it in with the older stuff that they’re familiar with…
“I mean, I put a lot of thought into the sequence of the set so that we don’t do too many new songs in a row. You really have to think about that. I don’t want to lose ‘em. But so far they’ve been very good and receptive about doing the new material.”
And, he adds, they don’t seem to mind that he’s left his Eagles repertoire on the sidelines.
“We just did two and a half years of intense Eagles touring,” Henley explains. “We played every market in the free world with the History tour, so I don’t see the need to do that (music) in these shows. And it’s been doing down fine; I think the word has gotten around that we don’t play any Eagles tunes,” save for “Seven Brides Road,” the Steve Young a capella piece the Eagles recorded for their 1980 “Eagles Live” album.
Though his fall tour supporting “Cass County” is relatively short, Henley plans to keep the campaign going in 2016, especially now that the Eagles plan to take “a pretty long hiatus” — although during that time the group will also be investigating the feasibility of an Eagles stage musical, which the group’s Glenn Frey, a Royal Oak native is taking a lead role on developing.
“I guess that’s what you do at this point of your career,” Henley says. “The documentary was so successful we decided we might have some success with a musical theater piece, the centerpiece of which would be ‘Hotel California’ but the entire catalog would be involved in some way.
“But that’s a tricky business, just what we’ve learned about it in the past two years. I mean, you can really go wrong with that, so we’re gonna do a lot of homework before we go down that road, and it may come to fruition and it may not. That’s just something we’re talking about and thinking about.”
Meanwhile, Henley is already plotting his next solo album, with a couple of options in mind — including “a 60s soul music, R&B-based thing,” “an album of torch songs” and “maybe an album that’s more based on the deep South and the blues and New Orleans, more of the Louisiana part of my growing up.” He’s also written a song he’d like to record with “Ode to Billie Joe” singer Bobbie Gentry, who he’s trying to track down.
“I’ve got all kinds of ideas,” reports Henley, who doesn’t plan to take another 15 years to bring them out. “At my age, I can’t afford to, can I? And I won’t. We’ll get something out there quickly — or, at least, quicker than (‘Cass County’) took.”