Dialogue: Don Henley
EmptyMost people know Don Henley as the multiple Grammy-winning founding member of the Eagles or as a successful solo artist. His peers know him as an artist's champion, the man who co-founded the Recording Artists' Coalition, a nonprofit, nonpartisan group that takes action against faulty accounting practices and unfair label contracts and advocates for legislative issues on behalf of recording artists. But his efforts as an environmentalist may be closest to his heart: He founded the nonprofit Walden Woods Project, which helps preserve the historic 2,680-acre ecological area surrounding Henry David Thoreau's Walden Pond in Massachusetts, and the Caddo Lake Institute in Henley's native East Texas, which sponsors "ecosystem-specific" projects. Henley will be honored at the 2007 MusiCares Person of the Year dinner and concert tonight in Los Angeles for his professional and philanthropic achievements. All proceeds from the annual Grammy Week event benefit MusiCares, a nonprofit offering aid to music people in times of financial, medical and personal need. Henley spoke with Billboard executive editor/associate publisher Tamara Conniff about the MusiCares honor, his environmental efforts and the upcoming Eagles album.
Billboard: What are your thoughts on being the MusiCares honoree?
Don Henley: I'm very impressed with what MusiCares does, and I'm glad I could help out. I'm told we've broken the record this year with the amount of funds raised. It's really a good charity.
Billboard: You're a very active environmentalist. Why?
Henley: That's an ongoing thing. I always laugh and say I probably could have made three or four more albums if I wasn't trying to save the planet. It goes back to my upbringing and my high school years. I was not a very good athlete, so I gravitated to the arts and literature. I had a few very good teachers in high school and college. I discovered Thoreau when I was in high school, and I discovered (Ralph Waldo) Emerson when I was in college. Their writings meant a great deal. Especially during the time when my father was so ill before he passed away. I got a lot of comfort and strength form those writers ... and then I moved to California.
Billboard: Life in the fast lane?
Henley: (Laughs.) Something like that. I got a little distracted.
Billboard: What made you start the Walden Woods Project?
Henley: In early 1990 I was watching CNN, and I heard them mention Walden Woods. I stopped what I was doing and went over to the TV set and saw these two gentlemen standing in a wood talking about how somebody was about to build a giant office park -- one of my favorite oxymorons, an office "park" -- with parking for 150 cars very near Thoreau's cabin site at Walden Pond. I got on the phone. Now we're in our 17th year. We've raised a lot of money. We've successfully stopped three commercial developments in Walden Woods, and we have purchased about 160 acres. We also built a library and a climate-controlled archive. We have the world's largest collection of Thoreau-related materials.
Billboard: How did majoring in English in college and studying Emerson and Thoreau influence you as an artist?
Henley: I'm a fairly mediocre musician, but I like to think of myself as a singer and a lyricist, and I read a lot. Thoreau and Emerson and all the other great writers I've read really helped me in the music business in a way that I never anticipated when I was in school. I majored in it anyway, just because I enjoyed it, but I was wrong. I'm still not a lyricist on the caliber of Randy Newman or Paul Simon, but I aspire to be, and I hope that my best stuff is yet to come. I'm working on it.
I was lucky. My dad never finished the eighth grade. He lived on a farm in Texas, and in the years leading up to the Great Depression, he had to quit school and go to work in the fields to help support the family with his brother and sister. It was his lifelong dream that I would go to college, and he saved up money to help me do that. While some of my environmental and educational endeavors may have taken me away from creating more "product" in this business, it's been a very rewarding and enriching part of my life and enabled me to write what I did write and what I'm going to write. I have no regrets in getting sidetracked with some of my nonprofit endeavors.
Musicians are my favorite people. I don't think there is anybody I'd rather hang out with. They have the best sense of humor and are honest, down-to-earth people, most of them. But I also don't want to be one-dimensional. I want to have a life outside of music business stuff. I don't want to sit around and talk about drumsticks all the time.
Billboard: When will you release the new Eagles album?
Henley: When it's done we will. Sometime in the next 60-90 days. We want to get it out before the summer. We've had a few interruptions. We've had a few distractions. We've had several.
Billboard: How is the recording going?
Henley: Some days it feels good. Some days it's challenging. It's exhilarating. It's worrisome. It's joyous. It's all of these things. It's a big mixed-emotions kind of thing. It always has been. It's no different from what it ever is. It's just that there are more distractions now with families and charities and lawsuits.
Billboard: Many in the business condemn your exclusive deal with Wal-Mart.
Henley: We've gotten a lot of flak for it. On the other hand, people keep on saying we need a new business model, we need a new paradigm, we need somebody to do something, so we stepped up and did something. Wal-Mart is getting their environmental and labor act together. We did our homework, and they are putting some innovative programs in place ecologywise. They can't be any more evil than a major record label; that's the way I look at it. We'll see what happens. The day after Thanksgiving, we sort of quietly put out a rerelease of the Australian concerts we did a couple of years ago, and they packaged three brand-new songs. They printed up 500,000 copies, and those are gone. Of course, we don't get any chart action on that, but it's a nice indicator for us.
Billboard: The Recording Artists' Coalition was key in getting the controversial "work for hire" amendment repealed. What issues are currently on the organization's docket?
Henley: It was a good thing. There are new issues every day here on the digital frontier; there are lots of things artists should be concerned about. Maybe with the last election, we're all a little more hopeful that we'll get some traction in the coming years.