Here is a tip for aspiring (or established) songwriters. If someone says your song is just awful - and you’re even inclined to agree – go get Willie Nelson to sing it. He will turn it into gold! Then again if the song is great, still get hold of Willie. He is bound to make it even greater.
Nelson’s remarkable ability to polish a song to perfection is once again demonstrated on his latest album First Rose of Spring. It is his 70th studio album – yes you heard it right 70! After all, he recently turned 87 – yes you heard it right 87!
In fact, he has been so prolific as a recording artist in his later years that he has churned out 16 albums in the last decade alone!
First Rose of Spring comes about12 months after the much-acclaimed and Grammy-winning Ride Me Back Home, yet somehow this latest release is even classier.
And speaking of great songs, there are two in particular which Willie makes not only greater but somehow reinvents.
The first – “We Are the Cowboys” – is one of the finest songs from Billy Joe Shaver’s massive collection and dates back almost 40 years. Yet Willie seems to make it brand new. His timing to record it right now is also very telling. For when America appears more divided as it has ever been, Willie coolly delivers one of the great unifying lines in country music: Cowboys are average American people/Texicans, Mexicans, Black men and Jews
The second is timely for another reason – Willie’s personal timeline. “Don’t Let the Old Man In” was written and recorded by Toby Keith for the 2018 movie The Mule, starring and directed by Clint Eastwood. It was inspired by a conversation between Toby and Clint when the country star asked the famed actor how he, as an octogenarian, could still turn out movies. Eastwood replied: “I don’t let the old man in.”
Serenaded by a Mickey Raphael’s wistful harmonica and a soothing steel guitar, Willie sings it sedately, as though it was written for him, and does full justice to a warm melody and Keith’s message intent. And when he declares Ask yourself how old you’d be/If you didn’t know the day you were born, Willie indeed takes personal ownership.
Another country star, Chris Stapleton, also gets a listing on First Rose of Spring, with Willie delivering a very respectful version of “Our Song.” There is a known mutual admiration between the two country stars of different generations.
The Charles Aznavour classic “Yesterday When I Was Young (Heir Encore)” – a hit in America for Roy Clark – again sees Willie at his soothing best. He sets his own pace for this old favourite, helped by a soft, reassuring string arrangement which marries beautifully with those Willie Trigger guitar licks!
Perhaps even more gentle and heartfelt is the title track and album single “First Rose of Spring,” written by Randy Houser, Allen Shamblin and Marc Beeson. The song may speak of spring and first growth, but it is a goodbye to a dying lover. Who wouldn’t want to hear the soft swooning of Willie on their deathbed? Tears to the eye indeed!
He has more spring in his step – and a true outlaw disposition - when he takes on the Johnny Paycheck hit “I’m The Only Hell My Mama Ever Raised” – So I reached into the glovebox/ Another liquor store went down.
The two original songs – duel compositions between Willie and his long-time producer Buddy Cannon –both sit firm and snugly in between the more high-profile cover tracks.
“Blue Star,” second up among the listings, is simply a gem and another which addresses mortality: And when you reach the heavens bright/I’ll be the blue star on your right. Willie’s lyrics are achingly mesmerizing, as again are his guitar riffs. The other joint composition, “Love Just Laughed” is also a love-lost lament, but one with a little more musical grunt and purpose!
It is fitting that Cannon gets a share of the writing honours for the sheer overall quality of Willie’s recent output has much to do with song selection and musical stewardship. And Cannon can surely take much credit for both.
It is simply astonishing that someone of Willie’s longevity can be expected to deliver annually such perfection in music-making. There is no doubt that when the definitive list of the great musical achievers in American history are permanently posted, the name Willie Nelson will sit alongside … whoever!
Editor Crossroads – Americana Musical Appreciation.