I grew up in the golden age of solo Don Henley work. I was 14 when he released “The Boys Of Summer”, one of the best songs of the 1980s. Just 2 years earlier, “Dirty Laundry” had been all over the radio, just at the time I was starting to pay serious attention to both the top 40 and to political messages in songs. That song and all of Building The Perfect Beast wound through my high school days, and then in the summer after my freshman year of college, he released The End Of The Innocence, another excellent collection of thoughtful and incisive rock songs. Robby and I were both such devoted fans that for his 21st birthday I made him a set of “Don Henley A-Z” cassettes, every solo Henley song in alphabetical order, mixed in with all the Eagles songs he sings lead on, and various collaborations with other artists, many of them in that Eagles California cohort — Jackson Browne, Warren Zevon, Stevie Nicks, etc. (In fact, Robby had made me a Stevie Nicks A-Z for my 18th birthday, so this was fair payback.)

More recently, though, something has felt a little off with Don. I guess it started with his 1994 Eagles song “Get Over It,” which I found absolutely, insufferably arrogant. The idea of this rich, privileged, white rock star sneering at other people’s pain, and spitting vitriol like “I’d like to find your inner child and kick its little ass”, was repellent to me, especially when it was paired with the tour in which the band broke new ground in exploiting its fans, charging unprecedented amounts of money for even the “cheap” seats. His 2000 album Inside Job was better, but it still had a number of massive-ego moments, not to mention the hypocrisy of bemoaning “exploitation.com” and “nobody else in the world but you” self-centeredness after year upon year of Eagles cash grabs. It got to the point where I didn’t even want to hear the 2007 Eagles album Long Road Out Of Eden.

It’s been 15 years since the last solo Henley album, and now he’s got a new record out, called Cass County, which Robby assigned to me last week. What quickly becomes clear is that Cass County is kind of a departure from Henley’s previous solo work, in that it’s a straight-up country album. Certainly the Eagles were always country-inflected rock, and Henley has always had a considerable country influence, showing up strongly in songs like “You’re Not Drinking Enough” and “A Month Of Sundays.” But this album pretty much throws rock and roll out the window, opening the door instead for tons of steel guitar, smalltown imagery, and songs whose entire meaning hangs on a pun. Exhibit A, a song about aging: “It’s the cost of living, and everyone pays.”

Cass County album cover

For that matter, I’d say a majority of the album’s songs tackle the topic of aging in one way or another. It’s apropos — Henley is now 68 years old. Thus, he reminisces in the deeply moving “Train In The Distance,” in which the train serves as a metaphor of the future to the kid, of escape to the adult, and of death to the old man. There’s “Take A Picture Of This,” which again travels through time from early triumphs to midlife domesticity to a late-life disintegration and a determination think about tomorrow rather than yesterday, a sentiment echoed in “No, Thank You” as “I respectfully decline / to spend my future living in the past.”

But, really? The album is named after Henley’s childhood home county, and the entire tone of the album seems to be a very intentional return to pre-Eagles roots. The time-travel songs and the “seen it all before” attitude don’t really suggest somebody who’s leaving the past behind. Not that he should, but his claims to the contrary are questionable. In “A Younger Man,” he disavows his former beliefs in “better days ahead” and “faith and hope and charity,” a cynicism that is disappointing but not terribly surprising from somebody who’s displayed the kind of bitterness Henley has shown from time to time over the years. On the other hand, “Where I Am Now” has a much brighter outlook, and really does look forward rather than back.

I think I’m coming off harsh on this album, but really, I enjoyed it. I grew up with kind of an allergy to country music, but I’m mostly over it, and I can enjoy a Merle Haggard or Dolly Parton duet on its own terms. In fact, probably my favorite song on the album (after “Train In The Distance”) is a Martina McBride duet called “That Old Flame” — then again, it’s probably the rockiest song on the album too. There’s great songwriting on display in several places here, and if moving from rock to country takes Henley from the arrogance of “Get Over It” to the compassion of a song like “Waiting Tables,” then I say yee-haw!

Maybe it’s just that, as Stevie says, “I’m getting older too,” but I find I can’t look up to Henley the way I did in my teens and twenties. He lost me with his greed and his sanctimony, and something I found out about this record pissed me off all over again. See, when Robby gave me the assignment, I went out and bought the CD from Amazon that evening, since they offer the awesome capability of immediately getting the MP3s even before the disc is in the mail. After listening a couple of times, I went out to Wikipedia to get a little background, only to find that the 12 tracks I bought are significantly different from the canonical version of the CD. Three songs are removed, and three others (from something called “Deluxe edition bonus tracks”) are added. Not only that, there’s apparently another version available exclusively at Target, with two more songs, one of which is a duet with Stevie goddamned Nicks! So while there are 18 Cass County songs, I only got 12 of them when I bought the record. I find these sorts of shenanigans absolutely infuriating. Nothing makes me want to pirate music more than buying an album and finding out later that I only really bought two thirds of it, and even over on his exploitation.com website he’s only selling 16 tracks worth. No, thank you — I don’t think so.