No one can accuse Willie Nelson of not acting his age… which, at 87, is an impressive feat. Throughout a recent string of albums, he’s been remarkably willing to devote much or most of the content to reflections on aging, which include looking back on regrets (or the lack of them — he did name a recent record after Frank Sinatra’s “My Way,” after all) and sweeter memories, or even ahead, to the reunion of lovers beyond the grave. Judging by his current song themes, the big sleep is something that’s always on his mind.
After the gentle one-two-three punch of 2017’s “God’s Problem Child,” 2018’s “Last Man Standing” and last year’s “Ride Me Back Home,” some critics were referring to these albums as a “mortality trilogy.” Surprise: With his new “First Rose of Spring,” it’s unofficially a tetralogy. Stay tuned for 2021, when Nelson will surely be bringing us a fifth installment in the knockin’-on-heaven’s-door pentalogy.
It’s a high level of output, to say the least: “First Rose of Spring” is officially his 70th studio album, and it’s almost as if he’s out to have his discography reach 100 before he does. You could almost imagine that he and his producer/co-writer of some years now, Buddy Cannon, have some kind of assembly line going to pump out these albums about all things autumnal… which is a funny kind of a factory to imagine. But the fact is, he’s on a serious streak of excellence, and if any one of these albums came out in isolation instead of rapid, workmanlike fashion, we’d probably all be proclaiming it some kind of stunning valedictory statement instead of just another dip into the endless supply of Willie’s Reserve. “First Rose” is good enough to blush about, anyway.
He and Cannon have cut down on the original songwriting this time — after writing all of “Problem Child” and five tracks of “Last Man,” they’re down to just two on this effort. But it’s a chance to show off what good song pickers they are, and with an ear toward themes that fit in with the recent ones they’ve favored.
As the opener, the title track (written by Randy Houser, Allen Shamblin and Mark Beeson — names that will mean something to country fans) is the story of a deep, nearly lifelong romantic love that goes all the way up to the wife’s death. It’s a weeper, but Nelson is more sanguine about death in the original song that follows, “Blue Star,” where the elder narrator tells his younger companion (“If I beat you to the end, I’ve had a big head start it’s true”) just where to meet him in the night sky.
Not everything that has to do with advanced age anticipates the final curtain, though. Toby Keith’s “Don’t Let the Old Man In,” written for Clint Eastwood’s “The Mule,” is about maintaining a junior outlook as a senior. The saddest and maybe best song here, “Stealing Home,” is a nostalgic companion piece to Miranda Lambert’s “The House That Built Me” — testimony to how you both can and can’t go home again later in life.
There are jauntier asides, like a cover of the Jimmy Dean/Dean Martin hobo/Rat Pack/slacker classic “Just Bummin’ Around” and a version of the Johnny Paycheck prison-themed hit “I’m the Only Hell My Mama Ever Raised” that Nelson had to remake, since Merle Haggard never did. But it’s the mixture of Zen and rue when Nelson is chronicling how the calendar marches on that really makes the album a melancholy but weirdly uplifting beauty. You might not even have to be half an octogenarian to appreciate its deep, sweet stocktaking… or the sound of that acoustic guitar that’s as battered as his voice is not. Long may he be this sadly Trigger-happy.
“First Rose of Spring”
Producer: Buddy Cannon. Musicians: Nelson, Cannon, Chad Cromwell, Kevin “Swine” Grantt, Mike Johnson, Catherine Marx, Larry Paxton, Mickey Raphael, Bobby Terry, Lonnie Wilson.