There is a secret history of pop music that is just beginning to be spoken. Ask any alternative band to name which groups inspired them to lip-synch in front of their bedroom mirrors, and the responses are no longer hallowed rock-critic icons like Bob Dylan, Captain Beefheart, or the Sex Pistols. Instead, the names likely to be rattled off are those of populist, heartland arena-rock gods like Cheap Trick, Kiss, and Rush. Similarly, any truly honest country singer will fess up that he or she paid dues in bar bands playing not the songs of George Jones but those of Dan Fogelberg and Loggins & Messina.
Or the Eagles. In these days of electronic music and joyful noise, the impact of Don Henley, Glenn Frey, and their cocaine-cowboy bandmates would seem to have waned—except in Nashville. The sound forged by the Eagles—a go-down-easy blend of farm-boy harmonies and mild rock beats-can be heard in bands like Diamond Rio and even on a single like Wynonna’s ”Tell Me Why.” Need further proof of how deeply their impact has been gouged into the country scene? Then give just one listen to Common Thread: The Songs of the Eagles (Giant), on which an Opry House full of the genre’s current leading lights, including Vince Gill, Clint Black, Travis Tritt, and Alan Jackson, tip their collective Stetsons to the most sexist, hedonistic, misogynistic, meanspirited—and, yes, influential—band of the ’70s.
Tritt kicks off Common Thread with his version of ”Take It Easy,” and his note-for-note remake of the band’s gotta-ramble highway anthem—down to the way the banjo enters the third verse—sets the tone for the rest of the album. Tribute albums are a dime a CD player these days, but none features cover versions so slavishly devoted to the original recordings as Common Thread. From the strings and piano on Black’s ”Desperado,” to the electric piano riff that runs through Gill’s version of ”I Can’t Tell You Why,” to the way Little Texas’ Dwayne O’Brien mimics Frey’s ”whoa whoa whoa” at the end of ”Peaceful Easy Feeling,” these remakes offer barely any new instrumental licks or vocal inflections. You’ll think you’ve stumbled into a star-studded Nashville karaoke bar with the tape machine stuck on ”Eagles.”
Maybe this is Nashville’s way of saluting the Eagles’ sharp sense of record-making craft, but the effect can be stultifying. The normally ornery Tritt sounds straitjacketed on ”Take It Easy”; Trisha Yearwood shows off her pipes but still comes across like a white zombie on ”New Kid in Town.” On the positive side, Jackson’s easygoing drawl is ideal for the still-lovely ”Tequila Sunrise,” John Anderson seems to have a ball with the rocker ”Heartache Tonight” (despite a jarring drum sound), and Tanya Tucker delights in transforming ”Already Gone” into a feminist anthem. More often, the remakes are pleasant and executed with the precision of a stopwatch, yet rarely as compelling as they could have been.
Given how agreeable the album is—and the absence of the band’s harder songs, like ”Life in the Fast Lane”—one could walk away from Common Thread remembering the Eagles as merely a bunch of mellow country-rock craftsmen—the original Alabama. That legacy, though, tells only half of their story. The Eagles may have started out in a laid-back, back-to-nature, early-’70s haze, but that peaceful easy feeling lasted only so long. With each album, the band’s tone grew more cynical and misanthropic. I have fond memories of singing along with the chorus of ”Lyin’ Eyes” in my dad’s car in 1975, but even as a 15-year-old I realized the lyrics were a hateful tale of infidelity and self-pity in which the woman gets all the blame. (Diamond Rio’s vanilla-wafer remake of the song on Common Thread may as well be a jingle.)
By the time the Eagles plodded on to their last studio album, 1979’s The Long Run (as sleazy, sated, and fascinating as any superstar album ever made), the band members had become humorless millionaires, their arrogance matched only by their self-loathing and contempt. They despised everything they had become and desired—and, hey, so did we. By the late ’70s, a string of inept presidents and frustratingly long gas lines had curdled the American dream; we had grown to hate ourselves and our country. In that sense, the Eagles were a metaphor for our low self-esteem during the tail end of that decade. No wonder we didn’t shed any tears when the band folded at the dawn of the ’80s—they so epitomized an era that their time had simply come and gone.
Common Thread barely hints at that story—the Eagles’ own secret history—but then, it wasn’t meant to. A charity venture, the album is designed to raise funds for the Walden Woods Project, founded by somber rock patriarch Henley to buy back from developers the land that nurtured Henry David Thoreau. Yet hidden in the worn-down grooves of those old Eagles LPs lies the real story—a tale of how the West was won, then lost. In many ways, we’re still trying to get it back. B-