Willie Nelson Tells Tales of Wisdom and Yearning on ‘First Rose of Spring’
For over half a century, Willie Nelson has carved out a path that diverged boldly from standard country terrain, and paved the way for innumerable acolytes. Recent albums have naturally found him preoccupied with twilight ruminations and retrospective musings. On 2017’s “God’s Problem Child,” he addressed death hoaxes with wry humor, and on the following year’s “Last Man Standing,” he commemorated his departed peers. He paid homage to Frank Sinatra the same year on “My Way,” and launched further into reminiscence on last year’s “Ride Me Back Home,” winning a tenth Grammy for Best Country Solo Performance with its title track. On his latest album, “First Rose of Spring,” Nelson teams up with longterm producer Buddy Cannon for a combination of new originals and varied reimaginations of old songs that focus more precisely than even before on notions of mortality, and spin them into poignant tales of wisdom and yearning.
The title track tells a love story in a voice that conveys an enlightenment and sensitivity accrued from a lifetime of rich experience. Nelson narrates the story in his trademark, colloquial inflections, letting the gentle lilt of the melody give color to his memories, as he relives them in real time from a measured distance. As the instrumentation elegantly drops out in the end, the eponymous rose, originally a symbol of fruitful passion, outlives the love it bloomed for, and endures as a remnant of all that was. “Blue Star” explores a similar situation from a different temporal perspective, with lyrics about confronting the reality that a love’s duration is contingent upon one’s own mortality. Without a trace of discomfort in his voice, Nelson romanticizes the state of affairs, and looks forward humbly to the prospect of a lasting union in spirit. You can hear worn wisdom in the way the string-laden tune trudges along with its yearning harmonica and lap steel.
“I’ll Break Out Again Tonight,” which originally appeared on a 1974 Merle Haggard album, is a prison tale with a twist, in which a speaker who has lost all hope of physical escape finds solace in the liberties of his imagination. Nelson transforms the more honky-tonk original into a somber, ruminative tune. “Don’t Let the Old Man In,” originally written by Toby Keith for Clint Eastowood’s 2008 film “The Mule,” continues where “Blue Star” left off, but takes a solitary focus. Nelson sings from a point of resigned persistence, keeping guard with a twinkle in his eye, as he watches life inch toward its inevitable close. “Just Bummin’ Around” picks up the pace, with Nelson returning to the jazzy styles that he has long dabbled with in his distinctive way. It’s a guitar-driven number with the twee simplicity of holiday pop jazz efforts. It might as well be “Winter Wonderland” generalized for all seasons, as the central sentiment is the same, about wasting away time in blissful complacence.
Oblique, twangy guitars, wailing harmonica, and a restrained blues backdrop carry Nelson’s endearing musings on the Chris Stapleton-penned “Our Song,” as he runs through what might otherwise seem like platitudes, but ring with unassuming depth and sincerity in his candidly expressive voice. “We Are the Cowboys” is a jaunty tune that finds Nelson with an extra spring in his step, engaged in a down home singalong. The song was composed by Nelson’s old friend Billy Joe Shaver, who recorded it solo in 1981, then with an allstar team of Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, and Nelson himself in 1999. Nelson chose to revisit the song because the times had rendered it newly relevant. What starts as a traditional elevation of a Western ideal takes an unanticipated turn when Nelson sings, “Cowboys are average American people / Texicans, Mexicans, black men and Jews.” The specific choice to diversify the everyman represented by the cowboys transforms the song into an anthem of unity.
“Stealing Home” finds Nelson’s voice stark and throaty, wavering between sonorous and wispy utterances as he takes on a narrative detachment, and weaves a story together that revisits the recurring themes of age and memory as fluid forms that manifest in words of wisdom. As the beat trudges along, recollections of youthful restlessness give way to nostalgic attachment in a warm vignette. “I’m the Only Hell My Mama Ever Raised” is a spirited jamboree, with Nelson donning a gruff voice over an insistent beat full of festive, country blues flourishes. It’s outlaw bravado, pitched as a reaction to maternal virtue. It’s a natural extension of the previous track’s reminiscence, and a particularly lively diversion in an album of slow cookers. “Love Just Laughed” is the calm after the storm. Nelson plays the haggard sage, once again looking back and betraying a smile. The band’s motions seem to exude naturally from his contemplative optimism, with instruments teasing out his fond thoughts in brief, fanciful melodies, and building to a cathartic chorus with a vaguely ‘90s country essence to it.
Closer, “Yesterday When I Was Young” was originally recorded by French pop artist Charles Aznavour in 1964, translated years later, and reimagined as a country song by Roy Clark in 1969. A precocious meditation imagined from a state of maturity, the song laments youthful dissipations with reflective wisdom. A pop song devoid of any overt country musical elements, it marks a stylistic departure, yet comes across as a cohesive afterthought, with Nelson’s ruminative storytelling and standard instrumental palette sustaining the album’s prevailing tone and mood. Swaying, redolent strings envelop Nelson as he gazes back, as a desperado in his last stand.
The songs that make up “First Rose of Spring” are all songs of wisdom. Nelson looks to the past and the future through the lens of a present colored by a rich lifetime of experiences. He uses his conversational idiosyncrasy, his jazzy fluidity, and his country core to flesh out stories with a rare expressive candor. Guitar, lap steel, harmonica, and strings elegantly guide his recollections through plaintive pieces with the spectre of honky-tonk stylings looming overhead. The songs explore youth and age from various creative angles, and hint at profound truths about the human condition and spirit. Having long established himself as a singular voice, Nelson now uses the inherent, classic quality of his sound and stylings to its full evocative potential, telling compelling tales with the charm and gravitas of a seasoned songwriter at his most sagacious.
“First Rose of Spring” is available July 3 on Apple Music.