Willie Nelson, “First Rose of Spring”

Willie Nelson
First Rose of Spring
LEGACY RECORDINGS
7/10

When country troubadour Willie Nelson sang the Kurt Weill classic “September Song” for his 1978 album Stardust, slowly intoning the words, “Oh, the days dwindle down / To a precious few,” the ragged but still fluid vocalist set up a sonic and lyrical palette that would last into the present—one full of autumnal moments essaying the passage of time and life and love’s inevitable decline, the bygone epics of a past without any real regard toward the future.

For Nelson in 2020, on the elegant, humming First Rose of Spring, it is still pitching an eternal autumn that seems to be his primary goal. Weary and elegiac, musky majestic moments such as the flittering “Yesterday When I Was Young” (a Charles Aznavour tune made famous by country cousin/banjo player Roy Clark) and Toby Keith’s curt “Don’t Let the Old Man In”—a sad, hurt song written for Clint Eastwood’s aging ungracefully film The Mule—sing softly the earnest earmarks of times spent and finales soon to follow. This Nelson isn’t bleak, but he sure comes close to it.

But with his old friend and longtime production-writing collaborator Buddy Cannon, (they co-penned the heart-busted “Love Just Laughed,” and the tender “Blue Star” for this album), Nelson’s September song need not be a fully fatal one. Wounded, perhaps—but not dead. Actually, calling an album “First Rose of Spring” suggests that the earth is still capable of taking a couple of whirls. And though mostly even, cool, and breezily paced, a boyish cover of Jimmy Dean’s “Just Bummin’ Around” and the mellow messiness of Johnny Paycheck’s “I’m the Only Hell My Mama Ever Raised” show that Nelson may have one foot in the grave—but the other has its pedal to the metal and is ready to roar.

After the death knell of 2017’s God’s Problem Child, 2018’s Last Man Standing, and last year’s Ride Me Back Home, it’s good to hear Willie moving further from the grave rather than nearer it.

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