Don Henley Talks About Land and Hopes and Dreams
Don Henley still can remember the smell of fresh dirt when he played as a child. And lying on his back in the big corn field of his family’s farm, he would gaze up to the expansive blue Texas skies. The stalks of corn looked like skyscrapers to the young boy.
“It wasn’t like the movie ‘Field of Dreams’ where baseball players were coming out of the corn but it gave me a place to dream,” the native Texan reflected during his visit to the Country Music Hall of Fame. “When the mind opens up you can think and dream.”
A co-founding member of the Eagles and writer of such songs as “Hotel California,” “The Boys of Summer” and “Life In The Fast Lane,” told the audience that he still maintains a little farm in Texas where he will go back when he knows it’s time to get off the highway. Henley believes that society’s lost contact with its land has resulted in what he calls a land deficit disorder, helping, he believes, to explain a change of culture in increased anger, violence and a lack of dream time.
Henley told moderator Warren Zanes that he worries that the real roots of country music are in danger of disappearing. But country music can be one of our last refuges and reflects the heritage of the land. Much of Henley’s life has been spent as an activist for preservation with the Walden Woods Project.
“I heard echoes of America in that room last night,” Henley reflected of the Americana Music Awards where he received a Lifetime Achievement Award called a “Trailblazer Award.” Henley seemed as surprised as those in attendance when he confessed he had never played at the historic Ryman Theater.
As he sat onstage at the Country Music Hall of Fame’s CMA Theater, he repeated some of the same themes about being a curator of tradition in approaching his first new album in over fifteen years.
The album was recorded in Nashville and is called Cass County, the name of the region where he grew up in Texas. The town Henley grew up in was surrounded by greats like ragtime pianist Scott Joplin born outside of his hometown of Gilmer, blues guitar pioneer T-Bone Walker and Leadbelly just down the road in Louisiana. Henley said he has visited the singer’s grave.
Henley’s mother loved big band music and his grandmother sang hymns and the songs of Stephen Foster. When Henley was ten, he saved enough money from cutting lawns to buy a GE transistor radio he carried with him everywhere. His real education came from radio and he pulled in stations from New Orleans, Oklahoma and WLAC in Nashville which had the legendary DJ “John R” who played R & B records and listeners thought was black. Looking back, he realizes how fortunate he was the radio signals traveled. Otherwise he would have been stuck listening to the town’s thirty-watt radio station whose main program was a daily livestock report.
Henley remembered driving with his father to work and hearing Louisiana Hayride on KWKH from Shreveport. It had all of the bad boys rejected by the Opry including Hank Williams, Elvis Presley, George Jones and Johnny Cash. Henley’s father served in World War II and his fondest wish was for his son to go to college. Having majored in English at North Texas State University, he discovered his love of words, poetry and literature that he says has served him so well. In fact reading Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay on self-reliance was pivotal in his decision to become a songwriter.
Henley was playing in a band called Shiloh with a young producer by the name of Kenny Rogers. Rogers just had a big hit with his band the First Edition and produced Shiloh’s first album. Henley was attracted to the region’s synthesis of country and rock and it was in Los Angeles that Henley met Glen Frey who was playing in Linda Ronstadt’s back-up band the Stone Ponys. They formed a partnership which eventually became known as the Eagles. Rogers was instrumental in helping Henley get freed from a contract with Shiloh so that he could sign with Asylum Records. Their first song “Take It Easy” was co-written by Frey and Jackson Browne and became a staple of the burgeoning country-rock genre in the early Seventies. The Eagles went on to become the largest selling band of all-time.
Henley described the Eagles as a “musical mutt.” In response to a question from Zanes about the band’s turn to rock, Henley said it was much overstated. Henley sited the band’s Detroit influences brought by Frey as well as the blues, R & B and Memphis influences that pervade “One of These Nights.” Ironically the Eagles never made it to Nashville and if Henley seems like a stranger in town all these years later, it would be hard to describe him as an interloper. Every artist in town was weaned on the Eagles, whether on their own or second-hand from their parents.
At both the CMHF and during his acceptance speech at the Americana Music Awards, Henley talked about tradition and the importance of building on country’s roots he traces back to several centuries in Europe. Henley sings duets on four of the new album’s tracks including “When I Stop Dreaming” with Dolly Parton.
To better understand where her voice came, Henley took a trip to Dollywood. “I hear this country and that part of the country,” he says of a voice that says everything about American history in its sorrow, joy, suffering, empathy and love. “It’s such an authentic voice grown from the land and grown from the clay.” The observation prompts Henley to quote the writer E.L. Doctorow who said: “We are neither all clay nor spirit. We are both.”
Parton was filming a movie about her family and dealing with some health problems but Henley says she literally got out of her hospital bed to record and shoot the song. He recounted how she left the studio, thanked the crew and went right back to her hospital bed.
One of Henley’s lifetime dreams was realized on Cass County when he got to sing with Merle Haggard. Henley wrote “The Cost of Living” with Haggard in mind and sought out the singer by attempting to meet with him on a tour stop. Henley hilariously described how all things need to go through Haggard’s bus driver. After a few interactions, the meeting was set. But when Henley met the legend, Haggard didn’t quite know who he was and said, “Y’all do some kind of Eagles tribute thing?’”
Later while recording, Henley recounts how Haggard brought up the question to him in conversation, “What has happened to country music?” It reminded him of something he was told by a friend who gives walking tours of Nashville. The guide has found that the majority of attendees don’t know who George Jones is. Henley says it’s just not right.
For Henley who has returned to his roots, tradition remains important. It’s about the duality of preserving the past while building on it. And here at the Country Music Hall of Fame, he was here to say it’s the ground upon which Cass County is built.
Originally posted here.