Nelson’s octogenarian status doesn’t keep him from cranking out more of his typical charm on First Rose of Spring.
Willie Nelson has always been prolific, but ever since he hit his mid-80s, he’s really been on a tear. Starting roughly with 2016’s For the Good Times, a warm tribute to the late Ray Price, Nelson has cranked out a string of strong albums that slyly intermingle country, folk, and blues while addressing Nelson’s own mortality with equal parts wistfulness and humor. These albums have ranged from very good to truly excellent, and 2020’s First Rose of Spring slots somewhere near the top of the list: If it never quite captures the sharp joke-telling or rollicking energy of Last Man Standing, neither does it suffer from the soft rock schmaltz that ever so slightly diluted Ride Me Back Home. Instead, it finds Nelson and longtime collaborator Buddy Cannon leaning into Willie’s wheelhouse, emphasizing his gifts as a purveyor of easygoing charm and his stature as an unparalleled interpretive singer and performer. (There are just two Nelson compositions in the bunch, but nearly all of them sound like they could have sprung from his pen.)
Most of the songs are laid-back and low-key, unhurried in their tempo but never lacking in grit or texture: the title track opens the album with high-and-lonesome harmonica and Nelson’s instantly-identifiable nylon string-picking, while “I’ll Break Out Again Tonight” ambles gracefully through weepy pedal steel. Nelson brings a little of the ol’ Stardust magic to the standard “Just Bummin’ Around,” a winking soft-shoe number; meanwhile, he kicks up a bit of a ruckus on Johnny Paycheck’s “I’m the Only Hell My Mama Ever Raised,” yet still manages to make the song sound rueful rather than ornery. It’s one of the album’s clearest testaments to Nelson’s knack for making cover songs scan like his own, but his take on Toby Keith might be more impressive still: A wistful version of “Don’t Let the Old Man In” stands proudly alongside Nelson’s recent songs about the inevitability of time. Speaking of which, check the album-closing “Yesterday When I Was Young,” which sounds haunted and cinematic. It’s another oldie, but the way Nelson sings it, you’d almost think he wrote it just this morning.
Published as part of Rooted & Restless | Q3 2020 Issue.