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ACL Fest 2010 preview: The Eagles

Don Henley talks Austin, the environment and enduring songs

Brian T. Atkinson

The Eagles have crafted several country-rock standards timely (‘Life in the Fast Lane') and timeless (‘Desperado'). Lead singer Don Henley's finest occasionally evolve from the former to the latter (‘The Last Resort,' his solo hit ‘Dirty Laundry').

Both fans and detractors have been vocal about the Eagles headlining the Austin City Limits Music Festival. Here's a unifying fact: You know the words to ‘Hotel California,' ‘Take It Easy,' ‘Tequila Sunrise.' Sing them Sunday night. Loudly. Pretend no one's looking.

‘The fans keep the old material fresh,' Henley says. ‘When the first notes of a familiar song are struck and a huge roar goes up, it's like the first time all over again.' We recently caught up via e-mail with the Linden native.

American-Statesman: How did growing up in Texas shape you as a songwriter?

Don Henley: I grew up in the far northeast corner of the state, about 20 miles from the Arkansas and Louisiana borders. It's a kind of marginal region, between the Red River and the Sabine River, where the Old South begins to transition into the West. That geography exposed me to many different kinds of music. Blues, country and western, as it was called then, and gospel music were staples. T-Bone Walker and Scott Joplin were both born on the outskirts of my hometown.

Which Texas songwriters were you particularly drawn to?

When I was a kid, I listened to the Louisiana Hayride radio program with my dad. It was broadcast from the Municipal Auditorium in Shreveport on station KWKH, and it featured Hank Williams, Kitty Wells, Hank Snow, Webb Pierce, Johnny Horton, Johnny Cash and a young Elvis Presley, who made his broadcast debut there in October 1954. Some of the great Texas-born country artists I listened to included Ernest Tubb, Jim Reeves, Hank Thompson, Lefty Frizzell, Bob Luman, Ray Price and George Jones.

When atmospheric conditions were just right, I was also able to tune in some of the big 50,000-watt AM radio stations, including WLAC in Nashville, WDIA in Memphis and WNOE in New Orleans. So, I heard a lot of great ethnic, regional music via those stations, a lot of rhythm and blues and early forms of what eventually became soul music.

What did you carry over from those early influences into your work with the Eagles?

I carried an appreciation for a wide variety of genres and styles. That's something that (fellow Eagles founding member) Glenn (Frey) and I share, as well as a knowledge of songs and recording artists, both well-known and obscure, going all the way back to the 1940s and '50s, up through the '60s and into the '70s. We went to school on dozens of recordings from those decades, studied the production and arranging techniques, dissected the songwriting. That's what you do if you're passionate about something.

What continues to make (the Eagles' top-selling album) ‘Their Greatest Hits (1971-1975)' such an accessible and popular collection?

I'm not sure that I'm the right person to ask. I'd like to think that it's the quality of the material, the consistency of the album as a whole. You could say that those songs have memorable melodies, married to decent lyrics. They're well arranged, well executed and they speak to a particular time and place that resonates with a large number of people, (baby) boomers in particular, but apparently also with subsequent generations.

But let's keep it simple. Let's just say that it's a real nice little collection of songs and people like 'em.

Which album do you consider to be the Eagles' definitive statement?

I don't think that any of our albums are a definitive statement, at least I hope not. Speaking strictly for myself, I like to think that I'm a work in progress, that my best work is still ahead of me. Maybe that's delusional, but it helps me get out of bed in the mornings. ‘Definitive statement' has a finality to it that makes me a tad uneasy.

Almost 35 years later, how relevant is the message of ‘The Last Resort' today?

I can't gauge the relevancy of anything in pop culture, especially in these times. That song was written in 1976 and, in terms of destructive human behavior, I don't see much improvement. As a culture, we don't retain the lessons of history, but then again, we never have. It's always one step forward and two steps back.

Where does it apply best?

There are, of course, rational, altruistic people in all sectors of the globe who are trying to make things better, but they're grossly outnumbered and outgunned. On the whole, we're an arrogant, shortsighted species, but Mother Nature will have the last word.

Are you satisfied with President Obama's progress with clean energy initiatives and other environmental policies?

Well, I think he's attempting to move in the right direction. He's trying to undo the damage that was done during the previous administration and bring us into the 21st century. But there are several factors aligned against him, one being the shaky economy and another being members of the opposition party, many of whom are in the pockets of the big energy companies. So, it's the same old story: Economic concerns impede environmental progress. Politics trumps science. Partisan gamesmanship crushes the common good.

There has long been a consensus in the world scientific community that global climate change is real and has, in fact, begun. Yet there are still goobers in the Texas legislature, on the Texas State Board of Education and in the U.S. Congress who say it's a hoax, a myth. I don't know if they're saying that because they really believe it, or because it's politically expedient. Maybe they just didn't go outside much this past summer.

What related issues should Obama focus on most now?

One issue that is directly, inextricably related to environmental health is population, but it's taboo. Nobody wants to talk about it, especially politicians. But we'll have to talk about it sooner or later.

What do you say to those who believe it's more important to concentrate on repairing the economy rather than the environment?

We live in an economy — domestically and globally — that is based on natural resources, which are sometimes called raw materials. Everything we do — everything we make, sell, consume — has its origins in the earth. For decades, we lived under the illusion that we had an economy based on manufacturing. Now, we live under the illusion that we have an economy that is largely based on technology and services.

Our economy is and always has been based on things that are mined, drilled, pumped, farmed or otherwise extracted from the planet, for example water, oil, gas, timber, ores, minerals. Our computers, our fabulous telecommunications equipment, our vehicles, fuels, foods, homes, clothing, all of our ‘stuff' is made from natural resources. Plastics are made from oil and gas. Even artificial fibers like Rayon and acetate are not truly synthetic. They're made of wood.

So, there is no economy without a healthy, sustainable environment. Some of these resources are renewable, but some of them are finite, and we need to be putting more time, effort and funding into developing alternatives. People aren't connecting the dots, including a lot of our so-called ‘leaders' here in Texas.

How do you encourage visitors to Austin to be environmentally responsible during the Austin City Limits festival?

One of the simplest things is just to put your trash in a trash can. It's really disheartening to see litter everywhere, and it doesn't reflect well on our culture. In this day and age, there's no shortage of information about green living. So, it's not as if folks don't know what to do. It's more about convenience and cost. If it's not convenient, or if it's going to cost a little extra, then people don't want to do it.

How should we all be more proactive on a daily basis?

At my house, we recycle everything that is recyclable. It's a sort of pain in the (expletive), but we want to do our part and we want to teach our kids to do theirs. We're trying to teach them the basics, like turning out the lights when they leave a room. That's a tough one. It would also be a good thing if consumers would pay a little more attention to where their food comes from. Corporate agribusiness is still snuffing out family farms. We buy locally grown produce whenever and wherever we can — organic, if possible.

What do you look forward to about performing at the Austin City Limits festival?

We haven't performed in Austin in quite some time, but I've always been connected to that city. In the 1960s, I made my rent playing clubs and frat parties in Austin. Over the years, I've supported various local politicians and environmental causes in Travis County. The headquarters of the Caddo Lake Institute, which I founded with Dwight Shellman in 1993, is now located in Austin. I have family there, too.

At a festival like ACL, what challenges do you face as far as connecting with fans on a personal level?

It's naturally a little harder to connect with the fans in an expansive festival setting, but we do everything in our power to make it work. We bring state-of-the-art sound and lighting systems and we try to put the energy out there, but there is a limit to how personally we can connect with a crowd of 60,000 souls. I mean, we can't go and have a beer with each one of them, you know? There just isn't time.

Seriously, though, I don't think that people come to a large festival expecting an intimate, up-close-and-personal experience. A festival is more about a collective experience. The songs are ultimately what connect us to the fans, and our job is to play and sing those songs the best that we possibly can. No histrionics, no pyrotechnics, no choreography, no (expletive). Just play the songs with feeling, and the fans make their own connections.

Describe the band's dynamic as performers today.

I never cared much for ‘dynamic' as a noun, but I'll give it a shot. Basically, we play better today because we are in possession of all our faculties. That is to say, we're not smashed. We still rehearse, still revisit and fine-tune the arrangements. We get criticized for lack of spontaneity, but we do what we do. That's the school we come from, and it has worked very well for us for almost 40 years.

Tell us about your upcoming solo album. What was the songwriting and song selection process like?

I'm doing an album that reflects the kind of country music I heard as a kid in the 1950s and '60s, the kind that has blues, rockabilly, bluegrass and gospel elements. I'm still writing.

Has a release date been set?

The album will not be completed until next year because the Eagles tour continues through October in the U.S. and then moves to Australia in December. So, there's no release date at this time. I'm simultaneously working on a soul and R&B album, and that should be completed next year as well. After that, I'm going to do a Southern Gothic autobiographical album and then an album of nouveau noir torch songs. Then I'm going fishing.

The Eagles perform at 8 p.m. Sunday on the Budweiser stage.