There is danger…
In the embers…
And you have only…
Yourself to blame.
The chorus in Don Henley ’s “That Old Flame,” a duet with Martina McBride, unfolds in short chunks. Every sentence is broken up into several phrases, none of which lasts more than five words. The space between them gives the listener time to digest what has been revealed, and simultaneously creates a certain drama about where the song is going.
The technique encourages reflection; a little reflection about the songs Henley has written through the years — both as a solo artist and a founding member of The Eagles — identifies this as one of his go-to approaches in telling a tale. “Hotel California,” “Boys of Summer,” “The Heart of the Matter” and “Desperado” all incorporate spaciousness as their storylines roll out.
“You can really clutter up a melody if you put too many words in there,” Henley says. “It’s really difficult, actually, to write a simple melody and say something at the same time.”
“If there’s a little struggle going on,” he adds in a follow-up email, “it’s wise to let melody win.”
That’s what happens in “That Old Flame,” released to country radio on July 17 through Play MPE as the first single from his upcoming album Cass County. A well-sculpted melody arrives in small bursts, allowing the accompanying lyrics to explore all the drama from a simple interaction: an email and a follow-up phone call between two former lovers. It’s a page out of real life for Henley, who brought up the concept with co-writer Stan Lynch (who also co-wrote Tim McGraw ’s “Back When”) during a songwriting session at Henley’s home studio in late 2012. A girlfriend from the ’80s had reached out to him, and until they actually talked, he had some trepidation about what she wanted.
“This was one of the last things we wrote for the album because we needed another uptempo song,” Henley says. “On radio, it’s all about tempo now — of course, it always has been. You’ve got to start with an uptempo song.”
Henley, of course, got started as a drummer for The Eagles, and Lynch spent more than a decade on the toms for Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers, so building a groove is a basic part of their collaborations. In this case, it started with a smoldering undercurrent of eighth notes.
“A lot of stuff with Don and I will start very nebulous,” Lynch notes. “We’ll be playing our legs, sort of like, ‘Here’s the beat, here’s how it would scan,’ and then we’ll backfill it from there. I remember Don telling me years ago, ‘It’s got to work from the waist down and the neck up.’ Like, ‘It’s got to move me, and I’ve got to be able to think.’ “
The song took multiple writing sessions to come together — “It’s not a puppy mill,” Lynch quips. “There’s no points for speed” — and it chronicled Henley’s emotional journey as he responded to his ex, who wanted to bring some closure to what had been a difficult parting.
“When you get to a certain point in life,” he says, “it’s good to bury the hatchet. It’s good to put any conflicts you might have had behind you and move on.”
Appropriate for a song about the past, Henley referenced a “cup of kindness” from the standard “Auld Lang Syne” and built the musical elements around songs from another era.
“This melody harkens back to traditional melodies from long ago, a little bit of ‘Will the Circle Be Unbroken,’ and there’s some rockabilly in there,” Henley says. “There are a lot of traditional roots in the chord progression.”
But it wasn’t completed until he came up with a short bridge that puts the conversation with his ex into a bigger context: “Is it really me you miss? / Or just your long-lost youth?”
“That couplet, for me, is extraordinary,” Lynch says. “Don goes, ‘We’re going to need a bridge,’ and I was wondering how you boil that down. And he did.”
They recorded a demo in Henley’s studio that they ultimately took to McBride’s Blackbird Studio in Nashville, where an A-list team of musicians built on — and ultimately replaced — the original instruments around Henley’s voice. Acoustic guitarist Bryan Sutton provides some of the throb underneath the track in tandem with drummer Greg Morrow, who played parts that most listeners will likely assume are Henley’s.
“Don puts it in the back pocket,” Lynch says. “He lays everything back a little bit as a drummer, and I think Greg naturally does that, too. They hit it off great — they both have Southern roots, they both love the same records, and they both listen to the same stuff.”
After the original session, Henley changed his mind about the bass part in the bridge. The first player wasn’t available at the time, so Jimmie Lee Sloas overdubbed that section; then they had him redo the entire song, just to keep a tonal continuity.
Henley meanwhile asked McBride to provide the female voice for the second verse. The first album she had ever owned was The Eagles’ Their Greatest Hits, so she was easily persuaded to do it, especially after she heard “That Old Flame.”
“It has a lot of layers emotionally,” she says. “It’s kind of angry, kind of suspicious, kind of sweet. It just seemed to be coming from a very interesting place.”
She wedged an overdub session into her schedule and got most of it done that first day, though they had her come back in to “beat up a couple lines,” Lynch says. McBride held back a bit, singing in a way that hints at her inherent force without putting it all on the line.
“It’s not a real power vocal,” she says. “It’s kind of a mid-range, storytelling vocal. It was really just two people trying to figure out what’s going on with each other.”
Henley’s guitarist Chris Holt added a burning, melodic solo at the Dallas studio, and “That Old Flame” was an easy pick for a single, thanks to the tempo, McBride’s vocal and the track’s tone.
“It leans toward rock, and a lot of this modern country music that you hear now is very rock-oriented,” says Henley. “Some of it is downright metal.”
Henley and McBride performed it in tandem live for the first time on Sept. 1 during an Austin City Limits taping in Texas. Audience members getting their initial exposure to it likely experienced “That Old Flame” in chunks: short bites of lyrics and judiciously placed fills that heighten the drama without creating a lot of clutter. In essence, the entire performance mirrors the spaciousness that’s built into those short phrases in the melody.
“The hole is just as important as the doughnut,” Henley explains. “It’s not always what you play. Sometimes it’s what you don’t play.”
This article first appeared in Billboard’s Country Update newsletter — subscribe here.