In the sleepy little towns down in Texas
The shades are all pulled down
The streets are all rolled up
— “Talking to the Moon,” Don Henley & J.D. Souther
The stage for Don Henley’s first-ever taping of “Austin City Limits” on Tuesday evening at ACL Live had been full from the outset, with a stellar supporting cast of 10 instrumentalists plus a parade of big-name guest vocalists: Ashley Monroe and Jamey Johnson early, Martina McBride and Trisha Yearwood later, plus a couple of Dixie Chicks ringers at the end.
But midway through the set, most of the musicians departed and left Henley with a minimal crew for a special moment in a night of special moments. “I only do this song when I’m in Texas,” he said, as guitar ace Steuart Smith shuffled back to piano for the graceful opening measures of “Talking to the Moon.”
Co-written with fellow native Texan J.D. Souther and recorded on Henley’s 1982 solo debut “I Can’t Stand Still,” the song struck upon a theme that the Eagles co-founder is revisiting at length more than 30 years later. Eleven of the 16 songs in his set for the taping came from “Cass County,” the most overtly country record of Henley’s career and an album that finds Henley digging deep into his East Texas roots. It’s due out Sept. 25 on Capitol Records.
The album’s theme made it a perfect fit for “Austin City Limits,” combined with the fact that Henley had never appeared on the program. (This hourlong episode will air on Oct. 24.) Even by ACL’s high standards, this was one of the most carefully crafted and exquisitely presented tapings in the show’s history. Despite the challenge of all those special guests and so many instrumentalists — two guitarists, two keyboardists, bass and drums, pedal steel and three backup singers — I’ve never heard the acoustics at ACL Live sound better than on this night.
A lone slight hitch was Henley’s voice, which sounded a bit gravelly as he addressed the crowd after opening with “Dirty Laundry,” one of four ’80s hits he delivered over the two-hour stretch as a sort of thank-you for fans indulging him in all the new material. Explaining that he had a “bronchial thing going on tonight,” Henley soldiered through it; mostly he kept it from affecting his singing, which soared on the familiar high notes of mid-set favorites “The End of the Innocence” and “Heart of the Matter.”
But the spotlight was clearly on “Cass County,” which combines new original tunes with a handful of choice covers. An early-set highlight was “Bramble Rose,” the title song of the 2002 debut album from another fellow native Texan, Tift Merritt, who rose to prominence in North Carolina. For the album, Miranda Lambert and Mick Jagger sing the second and third verses; on this night, Lambert’s Pistol Annies cohort Monroe teamed with Johnson, after each had done a solo turn on the album tracks “When I Stop Dreaming” (a Louvin Brothers classic) and “The Cost of Living,” respectively.
Midway through the set, McBride brought a spark to the uptempo cautionary tale “That Old Flame,” shortly before Yearwood dueted with Henley on the tender “Words Can Break Your Heart” — lyrically the best of the new originals on “Cass County” — and the album-closing rocker “Where I Am Now.” Sisters Emily Robison Strayer and Martie Maguire (Dixie Chicks, Court Yard Hounds) joined in on banjo and fiddle for “She Sang Hymns Out of Tune,” a terrifically twisted Jesse Lee Kincaid tune recorded in 1968 by bluegrassers the Dillards.
The entire cast then convened for the gospel-ish “Praying for Rain,” a vocal tour de force that Henley said he wrote during the worst of the recent Texas drought. “I waited too long to get the album out and it rained like hell,” he joked.
The rains came, figuratively, just as the song concluded: Stagehands had surrounded Henley with two large hammered dulcimers at center stage just before “Praying for Rain’ began, and as the song ended, the band cleared out for dulcimer aces Dana Hamilton and Bonnie Carol. This was a special treat for the live show only, as it’s not on the album. The two coaxed fascinating sounds from the dulcimers for several minutes before Henley and band returned for “The Boys of Summer.” (A postscript, a second take for TV of “When I Stop Dreaming” with Monroe in a different key, proved a perfect parting note.)
Among the instrumentalists, Smith — a fixture in the latest touring lineup of the Eagles that appeared at the Erwin Center in May — was essential throughout, and when Henley veered stage-left to jam with him as “The Boys of Summer” neared its end, it felt like a tip of the hat to Smith’s talents. One of the three backup singers, Amarillo native Erica Swindell, also stood out on violin and viola, particularly with a magnificent solo in “The End of the Innocence.” Filling out the crew were Michael Thompson and Will Hollis on keyboards, Chris Holt on guitar, Milo Deering on pedal steel, Lance Morrison on bass, Scott Crago on drums, and Lara Johnston and Lily Elise on backing vocals.
1. Dirty Laundry
2. No, Thank You
3. When I Stop Dreaming
4. The Cost of Living
5. Bramble Rose
6. The End of the Innocence
7. Talking to the Moon
8. That Old Flame
9. Train in the Distance
10. The Heart of the Matter
11. Words Can Break Your Heart
12. Where I Am Now
13. Take a Picture of This
14. She Sang Hymns Out of Tune
15. Praying for Rain
16. hammered dulcimer duo
17. The Boys of Summer
18. When I Stop Dreaming (retake)