Don Henley: Return to Cass County


Photo by Danny Clinch

Multiple generations continue to dance and sing, fall in and out of love, expand their dreams, and otherwise resonate with the tunes of the Eagles and founding member Don Henley, who hails from a small town in the Upper East Side of Texas.

Spotify for Don Henley MusicFor more than four decades, Henley has shared his time and talents with fans all over the world. Most recently, he and his Eagles band mates were on tour for a couple of years following the success of their documentary, History of the Eagles. The hugely successful tour grossed more than $250 million. In other good news for the band, they are receiving the prestigious Kennedy Center Honors for Lifetime Artistic Achievements at a gala in Washington D.C., broadcasting on CBS at 8 p.m. December 29.

But perhaps even more importantly to Don Henley, is his new CD, Cass County, that takes him back where he started.

Hughlene McWhorter and C.J. Henley had very deep roots in Northeast Texas by the time their only child, Donald Hugh Henley, was born on July 22, 1947. C.J. was born in Como near Sulphur Springs and Hughlene was born in Linden just a couple of blocks away from the home where they raised one of America’s most famous performing singer-songwriters.

Growing up in rural Northeast Texas Don Henley’s earliest memories hold the backdrop of timberlands, heavily forested with pine, cypress, and oak trees; rivers and lakes; the small downtown of Linden; and his father’s cornfields and wide open spaces.

“There was a lot of freedom,” Henley said. “There was room to roam. I remember the beauty of the landscape; the freedom of being outdoors, day and night, and working in my dad’s vegetable garden and enjoying the taste of fresh produce. I enjoyed just playing in the dirt in the shade of the sassafras trees at the edge of my dad’s cornfield.”  

As boyhood kicked in he began to venture out, exploring the woods behind their house with his dog and going to the local movie theater.

He was inspired by the heroes of the cowboy movies he saw on Saturday afternoons like Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Hopalong Cassidy, The Lone Ranger, and Lash Larue.  

Music was always a part of Henley’s upbringing and he was exposed to an eclectic mix of musical genres including country, big band, gospel, jazz, and blues.

“There was always music in our home,” he said. “My mother played the piano.  My maternal grandmother, who lived with us, sat in her rocking chair singing hymns and Stephen Foster songs.”

They also had radios in the cars and in the house.

“My dad’s father had a big old wooden radio made in the 1930s, and he listened to country music and baseball games on that old radio.”

Later the family got a record player and in the ‘60s a hi-fi stereo and often listened to big band music.

His dad, a World War II veteran, farmer and auto parts dealer; and mom, a teacher, were big influences on Henley and he recognized their hard work and the challenges they lived through with the war and the Great Depression. Like a lot of good people from that era, they wanted an easier time for their son.

“They made sure I had books to read and my mom, recognizing that I had some talent, bought me my first drum set in 1963.”  

His parents weren’t the only ones to recognize talent in young Henley and he credits some of his school teachers for their support including Lois Daniels in elementary school, Gladys Moore in junior high, and his high school English teacher Margaret Lovelace.

While gaining a good education and encouragement from his family and community, it was the radio that was his “magic carpet,” Henley said, bringing the world to him from all different directions.

Some of Henley’s first inspirational artists he heard include Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino, Ray Charles, the Everly Brothers, Kitty Wells, Jim Reeves and Patsy Cline just to name a few.

By the time he was in his teens, Henley was ready to create his own music.

“I had always had a habit of drumming, either with my fingers or with pencils, on my school books or the dashboards of cars.”

His good friend, Richard Bowden, was first chair trombone in the Linden high school marching band. Bowden suggested Henley try out for drummer.

“So I did that and one thing led to another,” Henley said.

Bowden’s parents, Marion and Elmer, were big supporters of their son and his friends’ musical talents.

“They allowed us to practice in their living room into the wee hours and Marion always had food for us,” Henley recalls. “Elmer, a musician himself, encouraged our efforts and protected us from crooked club owners and dishonest, would-be managers who were constantly trying to take advantage of green country boys like us. It was a very nurturing environment and an unusual set of circumstances.  We were lucky boys.”

Elmer and Richard Bowden, and a few other local folks had formed a Dixieland Jazz band and invited Henley to play with them, which he did for a while.

“Eventually, the grown ups dropped out of the band and passed the torch to Richard, Jerry Surratt (who was a state champion trumpet player), a local guitarist named Freddie Neese, and me,” Henley said.

“When the Beatles arrived on the popular music scene, we began to transition from doing strictly instrumental music (usually featuring the trumpet or guitar), to performing the hit songs of the day. At first, we all shared vocal duties, but as time went on, I did more and more of the singing.  I was a pretty good mimic and could imitate several of the popular vocalists of the day, or at least I thought I could.  But, I eventually found my own voice.”

He graduated from high school in 1965 and enrolled at Stephen F. Austin University in Nacogdoches, transferring a year later to North Texas State University where he majored in English literature. 

After three semesters, Henley returned to Linden to spend time with his father, who was ill. While at home, he reunited with his old band, they eventually called Shiloh. They played frequent concerts in Texas and the surrounding states.

In the summer of 1968, Henley and some of the band members were buying bell-bottom pants and Nehru jackets in a clothing store on McKinney Avenue in Dallas called The Electric Rocking Horse. By chance, they met Kenny Rogers there who was looking for talent to produce. Jerry Surratt asked Rogers to come hear the band play at a club in Dallas and Rogers ended up signing them to a recording contract with a small label in Los Angeles.

Tragically, Jerry Surratt was killed in a motorcycle-auto accident March 5, 1970.

Shiloh regrouped with Henley, Richard Bowden and his first cousin Mike, and a couple of other musicians, Al Perkins, and Jim Ed Norman and they headed to California in the summer of 1970.

“We received an offer from Kenny Rogers to come to Los Angeles and make a record album,” Henley said. “We had done some recording for small-time labels in Texas, but this was our first opportunity to move up to another level in the music industry.  So, we — Richard and the rest of the boys in our band — packed up our things and moved to Los Angeles, knowing only one person there — Kenny Rogers.”

Rogers made good on his promise.

“Kenny produced our first — and only — album, which wasn’t a real success, but our connection with Kenny landed us in Los Angeles, which, at that time in history, was the center of the music business.”

Their record deal was with a small label called Amos Records. Also signed to that same label was a young musician from the Detroit rock scene, Glenn Frey. 

Though they came from vastly different backgrounds, they both grew up listening to and appreciating a wide variety of musical influences and their union produced a harmony that resonated with millions in the years to come.

The two first joined Linda Ronstadt as her back up band and although they loved what she was doing musically they wanted their own band with four guys that could all sing.

Henley and Frey formed the Eagles in 1971 with Bernie Leadon and Randy Miesner. 

They released their self-titled debut album in 1972 with three top 40 singles: “Take It Easy,” “Witchy Woman,” and “Peaceful Easy Feeling.” That was followed in 1973 with their next album, Desperado, with two of the band’s most popular tracks, “Desperado” and “Tequila Sunrise.”

Guitarist Don Felder joined the band and performed on their 1974 album, On the Border, with top single “Already Gone” and their first number one, “Best of My Love.”

In 1975 the Eagles enjoyed even bigger success with “One of These Nights,” “Lyin’ Eyes,” and “Take It to the Limit.”

In late 1975, Leadon was replaced with Joe Walsh and in 1976 the band released Hotel California, which sold more than 32 million copies worldwide. That album had two number-one singles, “New Kid in Town” and “Hotel California.” 

Hotel California is the last album to feature founding member Randy Meisner who left the band after the 1977 tour. He was replaced with Timothy B. Schmit.

The last Eagles album of the 70s was The Long Run, with three Top 10 singles, “Heartache Tonight,” “The Long Run,” and “I Can’t Tell You Why.”

After almost a decade of magical success, the Eagles broke up in 1980 over clashing personalities and the story goes that Henley commented that the band would play together again “when hell freezes over.”

Henley went on to great solo success and embraced this time in his life.

“It gave me the opportunity to write with other people besides members of the Eagles, and it gave me the chance to work within a wider range of musical styles,” he said.

He sang a duet, “Leather and Lace,” with Stevie Nicks in 1981 and in 1982 he released I Can’t Stand Still featuring the hit “Dirty Laundry.” 

The song reached #3 on Billboard Hot 100 at the beginning of 1983 and earned a Gold-certified single for sales of over a million copies in the US. It was Henley’s all-time biggest solo hit single, and also was nominated for a Grammy. 

Henley also contributed “Love Rules” to the 1982 Fast Times at Ridgemont High movie soundtrack. 

This was followed in 1984 by the album, Building the Perfect Beast. A single release, “The Boys of Summer,” reached No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100. The music video for the song won several MTV Video Music Awards including Best Video of the Year. 

Henley also won the Grammy Award for Best Male Rock Vocal Performance for the song. Several other songs on the album, “All She Wants to Do Is Dance” (No. 9 on Hot 100), “Not Enough Love in the World” (No. 34) and “Sunset Grill” (No. 22) also received considerable airplay. He then had a No. 3 album rock chart hit with “Who Owns This Place” from 1986’s The Color of Money soundtrack.

Henley’s next album, 1989’s The End of the Innocence, was even more successful. The song “The End of the Innocence,” a collaboration with Bruce Hornsby, reached No. 8 as a single. “The Heart of the Matter,” “The Last Worthless Evening,” and “New York Minute” were among other songs that gained radio airplay. Henley again won the Best Male Rock Vocal Performance Grammy in 1990 for the album.

During the 70s and 80s, Henley didn’t lose touch with his home town in Cass County and visited family and friends frequently. Henley continued to live in the Los Angeles area until 1994 when he moved to Dallas after an earthquake. 

Another big event occurred that year as well when “hell froze over.”

A year earlier, a group of country music artists produced an Eagles tribute album titled Common Thread: The Songs of the Eagles. Travis Tritt is featured singing “Take It Easy” and in producing the video for it, he insisted on having the members of the late 70s-era Eagles in the video and they agreed.

The next year the Eagles formally reunited with their first live performance in April 1994. The ensuing tour spawned a live album, Hell Freezes Over, which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard album chart. It included four new studio songs, with “Get Over It” and “Love Will Keep Us Alive” both becoming Top 40 hits.

The group has remained together to some degree since then.

“We have done some touring, somewhere in the world, almost every year since 1994,” Henley said.

Henley’s own list of highlights during his time with the Eagles include recording with the London Symphony in 1973, in London; giving a concert at the Rose Bowl in 1995; playing in Moscow in May of 2001; giving a concert on the grounds of historic Stormont Estate, the home of the new assembly and the old Northern Ireland parliament, just seven miles from Belfast city centre, June 2001; playing in the public square in the ancient walled city of Lucca, Italy (Tuscany) in July 2001; playing in Reykjavík, Iceland, in June, 2011; and playing in Cape Town, South Africa, in June 2012.

Although he said he could only guess at why their music continues to speak to multiple generations for more than four decades now, he believes it has to do with the attention they put into it.

“I suppose it’s because our music is well-crafted. It contains memorable melodies, lyrics with universal themes, thoughtful arrangements and good musicianship — all recorded on state-of-the art equipment with high standards of production.  So, all the elements are there — we made sure of that.”

In between touring with the Eagles these past few years, Henley began to think about doing another solo album.

“Several years ago, I began to grow tired of the “new country” music I was hearing on the radio. To me, it didn’t authentically reflect “the country” or the people who live there. So, I decided to do a country-flavored album of my own — one that reflected the influences of the country music that I heard all through my childhood and my adolescence.”

He spent about five years working on it and once his current Eagle tour ended this summer he wrapped up production and released Cass County, a reflection of his roots in Northeast Texas. The album debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart, selling more than 87,000 units in its first week of release according to Nielsen Music. That’s his first No. 1 solo album in his career and Henley’s happy to share that honor with his home town community.

“It’s not an exercise in nostalgia; it’s an exercise in perspective,” he said about his newest project. “It’s good not to forget where we come from and it’s healthy to look at the whole picture — the good, the bad, and everything in between. By looking back over my life, through the creation of music, I can see how far I’ve come and how I got here. I can see pivotal moments in my life and the results of critical decisions that I made in those moments. It helps me to locate myself in the present and it helps me to map out the future.”

Henley hopes it will do the same for people who hear it. 

“Ultimately, it’s about ‘home’ and what home means to different people. It’s also a tribute to all the great country music stars I heard on my dad’s car radio when I was a young boy.”

Henley called in a few amazing friends to help with the writing and performing of the songs and production of the album recorded in several studios in Dallas and Nashville.

“A great deal of time, care and money was put into making the album.  Many of the finest musicians in Nashville, Dallas, and Los Angeles played and sang on the album. I hope the fans hear and appreciate the time and effort that went into the making of this record.”

Henley’s childhood friend, Richard Bowden, pitches in with guitar on a couple of songs and Steuart Smith, who joined the Eagles in 2001 after Don Felder left, is featured prominently throughout the album. Long-time friend Stan Lynch is listed as coproducer of the album and co-wrote many of the songs with Henley.

An impressive list of musical superstars contributing to the album includes Mick Jagger, Miranda Lambert, Merle Haggard, Lee Ann Womack, Alison Krauss, Martina McBride, Trisha Yearwood, Dolly Parton, Vince Gill, and Lucinda Williams. 

“I can truthfully say, I enjoyed making this record more than any record I’ve made in my career because of the people who participated,” Henley said. “Dolly Parton and Merle Haggard are two of the most memorable. Dolly was delightful to work with — a true professional and as kind and gracious as anyone could be. Merle is a very interesting character. He’s one of the all-time greats.”

All the songs were carefully cultivated to fit the sense of connection and community he hopes listeners hear on this album that leans toward country but doesn’t necessarily fall into any particular genre.

“The famous jazz drummer, Buddy Rich, once said that there are only two kinds of music — good and bad. I’d like to think that this album falls into the first category,” Henley said.  

 The careful considerations that Henley takes with his music are evident in other projects close to his heart as well. 

Henley founded the Caddo Lake Institute to underwrite local wetland science and conservation education. Donations continue to be welcome and needed, he said.

Caddo Lake has special meaning to Henley as the place he caught his first fish and anyone that’s ever been there amongst the ancient moss-draped cypress trees agrees it’s a magical place where people can find or lose themselves.

His love for the lake is deeply rooted. His parents met in a riverfront honky-tonk upstream in Jefferson and the lake was a spiritual refuge for his dad, he said, and he treasures his own boyhood memories of fishing on the lake.

Thanks to the institute’s work, Caddo Lake became the 13th U.S. site designated a “wetland of international importance.”

Henley also co-founded the Recording Artists’ Coalition, a nonprofit, nonpartisan group formed to represent the interests of recording artists. 

“The Internet (especially Google and YouTube) is killing the music industry by aiding in the theft of copyrighted material,” he said. “If this continues, no one will be able to make a living by writing and recording songs anymore. The Recording Artists Coalition is trying to educate legislators in Washington about the problems facing the creative community. ” 

The plight of the small family farmer is another cause he continues to study.

“Family farms are being driven out of business by big agribusiness,” he said. “Industrial farming is driving the small farmer off the land. To make things worse, between two and three million acres of farmland are being paved over, every year, by developers and suburban sprawl.”

Musician, songwriter, singer, producer, intellectual, environmentalist, and philanthropist, are but a few titles used to describe Don Henley. To him, however, the most important title at this stage of his life is father.

Henley currently lives in Dallas with his wife of more than 20 years and three children — ages 15, 17, and 19. In his leisure time he likes to read, garden, fish, hang out with his children, and cook.  

“I do most of the grocery shopping for the family (when I’m not touring) — and I cook, too. I like to cook.”

Being a father is his favorite part of his life today and a perfect day is, “when all of my kids are laughing and happy.”

Henley owns property in downtown Linden and has a farm outside of town.

“I get to East Texas fairly often and I visit with friends, check on my property,” he said. “I have many good friends in Cass County and we keep in touch.”

One of his favorite places to write songs is on his East Texas farm, bonfire blazing, guitar in hand.

He is also involved in civic affairs in Linden and sees many changes over the years since he used to walk to the local movie theater and enjoy other downtown businesses.

“It has become less populated and less prosperous. There are few, if any, economic engines in the area — very little industry, very few jobs being created. We need better leadership, at the local and state levels, and we need more educated, skilled people moving back to the area and establishing businesses.”

Honoring his small-town beginnings is important to Henley and he shares good advice for young people in East Texas about following their dreams.

“Never let the fact that you’re from a small town shake your confidence or your belief in yourself,” he said. “Kids who grow up and go to school in the bigger cities may have some advantages, but there are many very successful people in America who came from small towns. Get a good educational foundation first, and then go out and work toward your dreams. Don’t be afraid to take a risk now and then as long as it’s a calculated risk. There will be failures and setbacks but those are just part of the process. Perseverance and belief in yourself are key. Your small-town values and your work ethic will serve you well. Nothing great is ever achieved without hard work.” 

At 68, Henley’s hard work continues to pay off and he has no plans to stop any time soon. He thinks the Eagles will do more touring as a group and said they’ll get together early next year to discuss that. In the meantime, he’s focused on his own solo tour and other projects.

“I intend to keep on writing songs and recording albums. The touring may come to a halt in a year or two, but I’ll continue to create music and recordings. I also intend to write my autobiography at some point, and maybe some poetry, but that’s a ways down the road, yet. I also intend to have a cornfield — a big one — like the ones my dad used to plant.”

Henley said his dad’s cornfield was his field of dreams when he was growing up, a place where he used to lay down on his back and peer through the corn tassels at the wide-open blue sky. He said he doesn’t think he’s had a sense of well being equal to that.

Wherever his journey takes him from here, Don Henley knows home is always there for him in Cass County.


UPDATE 01.18.16: Eagles co-founder Glenn Frey died January 18, 2016.

From the Eagles and the Frey family: It is with the heaviest of hearts that we announce the passing of husband, best friend, father, comrade, and Eagles founder, Glenn Frey, in New York City on Monday, January 18th, 2016. Glenn fought a courageous battle for the past several weeks but, sadly, succumbed to complications from Rheumatoid Arthritis, Aacute Ulcerative Colities and Pneumonia. The Frey family would like to thank everyone who joined Glenn to fight this fight and hped and prayed for his recovery. Words can neither describe our sorrow, nor our love and respect for all that he has given to us, his family, the music community and millions of fans worldwide. 
Cindy Frey, Taylor Frey, Deacon Frey, Otis Frey
Don Henley, Joe Walsh, Timothy B. Schmit, Bernie Leadon, Irving Azoff
From Don Henley: 
“He was like a brother to me; we were family, and like most families, there was some dysfunction. But, the bond we forged 45 years ago was never broken, even during the 14 years that the Eagles were dissolved. We were two young men who made the pilgrimage to Los Angeles with the same dream: to make our mark in the music industry — and with perseverance, a deep love of music, our alliance with other great musicians and our manager, Irving Azoff, we built something that has lasted longer than anyone could have dreamed. But, Glenn was the one who started it all. He was the spark plug, the man with the plan. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of popular music and a work ethic that wouldn’t quit. He was funny, bullheaded, mercurial, generous, deeply talented and driven. He loved his wife and kids more than anything. We are all in a state of shock, disbelief and profound sorrow. We brought our two-year “History of the Eagles Tour” to a triumphant close at the end of July and now he is gone. I’m not sure I believe in fate, but I know that crossing paths with Glenn Lewis Frey in 1970 changed my life forever, and it eventually had an impact on the lives of millions of other people all over the planet. It will be very strange going forward in a world without him in it. But, I will be grateful, every day, that he was in my life. Rest in peace, my brother. You did what you set out to do, and then some.” -Don Henley



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