Don Henley takes us to Cass County

It’s not everyday we get to witness a superstar artist explore his musical roots. But that’s what Don Henley did during his debut appearance on Austin City Limits. For his forthcoming solo album Cass County, co-produced by Stan Lynch, out on Sept. 25 and his first in 15 years, the erstwhile Eagles co-founder explores a genre with which he has more than a passing familiarity: country music. Inspired by the sounds he heard growing up in Linden, Texas, Henley, his band and some very special guests showcased many of the songs from his new album, debuting them on our ACL stage for the first time anywhere.

But first he dipped briefly back into the past, opening with the rock radio classic “Dirty Laundry,” getting the audience immediately engaged. He then segued into the first of his new songs, the country rockin’ political broadside “No, Thank You.” Henley followed by welcoming his first guest – acclaimed country singer/songwriter Ashley Monroe, last seen on our stage with Miranda Lambert’s Pistol Annies – she sang beautifully on the Louvin Brothers’ ballad “When I Stop Dreaming.” Outlaw country revivalist Jamey Johnson appeared next on the thoughtful “The Cost Of Living,” after which he and Henley were rejoined by Monroe for Tift Merritt’s poignant waltz “Bramble Rose.” Henley then returned to his back catalog, for a relaxed, crowd-pleasing take on his huge hit “The End Of The Innocence,” with Erica Swindell’s liquid fiddle subbing for the original’s sonorous sax.

Henley reached back a few decades to his very first solo release I Can’t Stand Still with the somber “Talking to the Moon,” co-written with Amarillo native J.D. Souther. Back in Cass County, he welcomed country star and Season 24 ACL vet Martina McBride to the stage for the anthemic heartland rocker “That Old Flame.” “Train In The Distance” brought the volume back down with its folky autobiography, before Henley flipped through his back pages once again with the stately “The Heart Of The Matter,” an audience favorite.

Nashville siren and ACL three-timer Trisha Yearwood then hit the stage for a pair of showcases: the romantic duet  “Words Can Break Your Heart” and the harmony rocker “Where I Am Now.” The lush breakup tune “Take A Picture Of This” added a spot of bitter defiance, before Henley brought on his final guests of the evening: sisters Emily Robison Strayer and Martie Maguire of Dixie Chicks and Court Yard Hounds. The pair added their banjo, fiddle and dulcet harmonies to “She Sang Hymns Out Of Tune,” a cover of the mystical Jesse Lee Kincaid waltz made famous in the 60s by Harry Nilsson and the Dillards.

Along with a pair of hammer dulcimers, all of the evening’s guests joined Henley for the environmentally conscious plea “Praying For Rain,” another new song that garnered a particularly enthusiastic reception. Dulcimer masters Dana Hamilton and Bonnie Carol brought down the rain as the star, guests and band left the stage.  

But it wasn’t quite over yet, as Henley launched into “The Boys Of Summer,” perhaps his best-known and loved hit, then invited Monroe back for “When I Stop Dreaming.” Thus ended a remarkable show full of new classics and old favorites. We can’t wait for you to see it when it airs on October 24th as part of our upcoming Season 41 on your local PBS station.