Willie Nelson Surveys His World on 'First Rose of Spring'
Country legend Willie Nelson employs his experience on a strong set of songs to take a wide look around him.
First Rose of Spring
3 July 2020
Willie Nelson completed a trio of mortality-focused albums with last year's Grammy-winning Ride Me Back Home. These records focused on Nelson's collaborative songwriting with Buddy Cannon, building into a series that, for all its awareness of death, looked at an array of topics from an older perspective. Nelson gave no sense that he was writing himself off into the sunset. New album First Rose of Spring turns a little. It's not a songwriting showcase; Nelson and Cannon write a little but mostly do a smart job giving voice to others' songs. The focus ostensibly shifts away from mortality, but death doesn't walk away so easily. Instead, Nelson shapes these 11 songs into a warm conversation enhanced by his skill as a singer.
The title track opens the album and addresses its mix of concerns. "First Rose of Spring" mixes genres in a love story/eulogy piece. Nelson eases us through the experience. His gifts have always included a special touch for delivery, and here it allows him to tell the story both as if repeating a tale told many times on his porch and as if it remains as devastating to him on this retelling as it was on the first. Nelson and Cannon answer this track with "Blue Star," a steel guitar looks toward reunion in the afterlife, still casual, but with some urgency creeping into Nelson's voice near the end of the track.
That casualness could apply to much of the album. If the previous records contained (again, loosely) a particular focus, First Rose of Spring stays more generally reflective. Nelson makes Toby Keith sound good with his version of "Don't Let the Old Man In", the tone of his voice allowing the resistance to aging to sit nicely alongside an awareness that we can't entirely keep the old out of our lives either. When Nelson sings, "Ask yourself how old you'd be / If you didn't know the day you were born," the answer clearly isn't meant to be "25", but he gives the phrase enough force to make it clear that – if you're doing it right – the answer should be less than your actual chronological age.
"Stealing Home" achieves a high point in its mature reflection on the impossibility of avoiding the effects of time, aided by the three levels of wordplay in the title. But if we've seen how Nelson looks back, we also see how First Rose of Spring lets him look around. Some of the collection is just for fun, which explains grabbing Dean Martin's "Just Bummin' Around" for a lighthearted moment. Some of it recognizes the work still ahead of us. Billy Joe Shaver's "We Are the Cowboys" joins the struggle for inclusivity: "Cowboys are average American people / Texicans, Mexicans, black men, and Jews." Nelson spends some time looking over his shoulder, but only in his understanding of what comes next.
"Yesterday When I Was Young (Hier Encore)" closes First Rose of Spring with one last reflection on aging. The album has this sort of thinking at both ends and scattered throughout the middle (though rarely as powerfully as here). Part of what makes these meditations effective, though, is the work Nelson does aside from those thoughts. When he looks back, he does so within a song but also as the context for the album. "I'm the Only Hell My Mama Ever Raised" sounds different in the mouth of someone closing in on 90 years old than it does in the smirk of a young jailbird. Tracks take on their meaning based on their setting, and Nelson, while taking a break from songwriting, has aptly built and environment for yet another memorable survey of his world.
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