Back in the old days rock and roll was rock and roll, and those who played it wanted NOTHING to do with that "hillbilly music" that people like George Jones, Buck Owens, and Merle Haggard were doing. Now you can't swing a drumstick without hitting a rock singer who's announced that he/she is making a "country record."
Understand something: this isn't the world of Brenda Lee, Jerry Lee Lewis, Jerry Wallace, or Conway Twitty, all of whom switched genres with varying degrees of success (Lee and Twitty ended up in the Country Music Hall of Fame, and "Little Miss Dynamite" is also in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame). This also isn't Gene Pitney's duet albums with George Jones, Ray Charles' Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, or Elvis Costello's Almost Blue album. This seems to be people looking at Harlan Howard's legendary quote that "country music is three chords and the truth" and thinking, "'Three chords? I can do that!"
Bret Michaels, the former lead singer of the 80's hair band Poison, has announced that he'll do a country album. Aerosmith lead vocalist Steven Tyler is also going to do a country album. And let's not forget "the Boss," Bruce Springsteen, who's reportedly had a country album in the can for nearly three years now.
The quote they are forgetting, however, comes from Hank Williams, who proclaimed, "You've got to have smelled an awful lot of manure before you can sing like a hillbilly." He wasn't talking about the kind that road managers and booking agents give artists on tour, either.
Fear not: unlike rockers like Richard Thompson (who wrote the IBMA award-winning song "1952 Vincent Black Lightning") or Sir Paul (who had a minor country hit with "Sally G." in 1974) you aren't going to see Bret Michaels' name pop up in the "Dates of Note in Country Music." Not even at gunpoint.
However, there is one rocker with a country album on the radar that's an exception. At least at this point, not having heard the album, I would say he has has more legitimacy when it comes to making a country album than any of the others. That person is Don Henley, the drummer, vocalist, songwriter, and co-founder of the Eagles.
Henley's first solo album in 15 years, Cass County (named after the county in Texas he was born and raised in), will be released later this year. He previewed it to a group of journalists earlier this week in Nashville.
Why will I give the man who sang "Dirty Laundry," "All She Wants to Do Is Dance," and dueted with Axl Rose on "I Will Not Go Quietly" a pass while the others are only agitating me with their "hey, I'll slap a cowboy hat on my head and call myself 'country'" schtick?
Simply put, history. Henley has proved he can sing country music. Songs such as "The Best of My Love," "Lyin' Eyes," "Hollywood Waltz," "Saturday Night," and "Midnight Flyer" showed the country side of the Eagles. When their second album, the concept album Desperado, came out fellow Eagle Glenn Frey referred to it as "a[n] (explicit deleted) cowboy record." While nothing was further from the truth (seriously, "Out of Control" is only country if you're referring to the George Jones song by that title, NOT the song on the Desperado album), there were times in the mid-70's when the Eagles were doing as well on the country singles charts as they did on the rock charts. They didn't particularly care for the term at the time, but they were considered the most successful of the "country-rock" acts that began in the late 1960's with the Byrds' landmark Sweetheart of the Rodeo album.
Henley's solo career, easily the most successful solo Eagle in terms of both commercial and critical success (I believe he's the only solo Eagle with a Grammy), left the "country rock" in the dust. I Can't Stand Still was a rock album, start to finish. Even his cover of "The Uncloudy Day," which he was inspired to include thanks to Willie Nelson's rendition, was reggae, not country. The next album, Building the Perfect Beast, rocked even harder...and began to reflect the popularity of synthesizers.
But there was a definite, undeniable country flavor to several Eagles songs in Henley's "first career." Additionally, Henley grew up in eastern Texas, two counties away from Country Hall of Famers Tex Ritter and Jim Reeves' birthplaces in Panola County, where he was exposed to country music as a child -- real country music, not whatever Bret Michaels must think passes as "country music." The 1969 album Shiloh, which first introduced the world to Don Henley, contained country elements (especially the hilarious "Down on the Farm," by future Pinkard & Bowden member Richard Bowden). The Eagles formed while the various members did a stint backing Linda Ronstadt in her country era (remember, she covered Wayne Raney's "We Need a Whole Lot More of Jesus [And a Lot Less Rock and Roll]" on Hand Sown...Home Grown [let's see Mr. Michaels do a Wayne Raney song!]). He may not have made every record a country record (if he had he certainly wouldn't be the subject of this blog!), but he does have far better credentials to present than anyone else in rock and roll currently making (or threatening to make) inroads into "country music."
The question now, which won't be answered until the album is released, is how country will this be? One of the songs on the album is a cover of the Louvin Brothers' classic "When I Stop Dreaming" with Dolly Parton singing along, and other country singers including Vince Gill will be guesting on the album. (He also has Mick Jagger guesting on one song, so the list of guest stars won't be an accurate indication.) The problem is that there's a vast difference in what the Eagles were doing as "country music" in the 70's and what is comically presented as "country music" today. There's not a country music station in America that would play "Lyin' Eyes" today. It would be dismissed it as "too country." Is that the country music we'll get from Henley, or will he be rehashing his ballads from The End of the Innocence (the title track to which could probably work well as a country song with different instrumentation backing it) and calling it "country" like the rest of the rock singers...er....country singers today?
Time will tell. Cass County is tentatively slated for release in the fall of 2015. Henley said at the preview that the album "is who I am." Let's hope "who he is" is Texas country, not Nashville schlock.