Willie Nelson, “First Rose of Spring” (Legacy). Beginning his seventh decade as a recording artist, Austin’s most celebrated musician may be nearing another crossroads. Against all odds, the 2010s were one of Nelson’s most productive decades: He released 17 albums, adding three Grammy Awards to his seven he’d previously won. Those albums were all over the map: all-new original material, hybrids of originals and covers, tributes to mentors and friends, family projects, collaborations, live sets.
At first glance, “First Rose of Spring” seems to follow suit. Once again teaming with Nashville producer Buddy Cannon, who’s done 14 records with Nelson since 2008, Willie mostly works as an interpreter here, serving up a mix of new and old songs from a variety of writers plus two new co-writes with Cannon. That’s similar to last year’s “Ride Me Back Home,” which featured four originals and seven covers.
“First Rose of Spring” also partly extends the theme of mortality that has marked Nelson’s last few albums, dating back to 2017’s “God’s Problem Child.” Several numbers here build on that, from the Toby Keith standout “Don’t Let the Old Man In” to Nelson and Cannon’s own beyond-this-life love song “Blue Star.”
But the time seems ripe for shifting gears. The pandemic has turned the world upside down for most everyone, including Willie, who’s no longer “On the Road Again” for the first time in eons. Will the sudden bounty of time spent with family and close friends on his ranch outside Austin — where he’ll perform as part of the first-ever livestreamed Fourth of July Picnic on Saturday — result in an onslaught of new material? If so, will it usher in a new phase for the 87-year-old living legend who has nothing left to prove? The bet here is that it will: Over the long haul, Willie’s always still moving, through new phases and stages.
In the meantime, then, “First Rose of Spring” feels a bit like the closing chapter of what has been an illuminating phase. Cannon has been an exemplary producer for Nelson, assembling tasteful and graceful arrangements that serve both the content of the songs and the effortlessly personable nature of Willie’s voice. That continues here: An ace Nashville cast couches the songs in just the right balance of electric, acoustic and steel guitars, piano and organ, bass and drums, background singers and a string section, with Nelson’s longtime harmonica sidekick Mickey Raphael as the connective tissue to his touring band.
The songs themselves are a remarkably varied lot. Two are nods to Nelson’s 1970s “outlaw” heyday: “I’ll Break Out Again Tonight” is a prison song his pal Merle Haggard recorded in 1974, while “I’m the Only Hell My Mama Ever Raised,” a 1977 hit for Johnny Paycheck, is nearly a sequel to Haggard’s classic “Mama Tried.” They’re both gimmes for Willie, honky-tonkers that play respectively to the sweetly swaying and boot-scooting ends of the honky-tonk spectrum.
Two other covers from the 1950s and ’60s draw closer to the jazz-inflected material Nelson explored in recent years with Grammy-winning tributes to the Gershwins (2016’s “Summertime”) and Frank Sinatra (2018’s “My Way”). The jaunty “Just Bummin’ Around,” a 1953 Pete Graves tune recorded by Dean Martin and others, feels perfectly dialed into Nelson’s younger days. Willie was 20 when it was written, and it’s easy to picture a young Nelson inhabiting carefree lyrics like “I got nothin’ to lose, not even the blues” or “I’m as free as the breeze and I’ll do as I please.”
More melancholy, and suitably tinged with dramatic touches of strings, is “Yesterday When I Was Young,” which closes the album. A 1965 French tune translated to English that’s the most instantly recognizable tune here, it’s been recorded by a litany of classic singers including Bing Crosby, Lena Horne and Julio Iglesias. It’s so well-suited for Nelson’s vocal imprint that it’s almost surprising he hadn’t recorded it until now.
But it fits very well here, feeding into the continued looking-back-at-life themes of his recent albums with Cannon. The “First Rose of Spring” title track speaks to that as well. Songwriter Randy Houser, who collaborated with Allen Shamblin and Mark Beeson on the tune, wrote it about his wife’s grandparents after the death of her grandmother. Cannon and Nelson’s “Blue Star” follows in both sequence and sentiment, a poetic assurance that love transcends death: “And when we reach the heavens bright, I’ll be the blue star on your right.”
The best of these winter-years reckonings is Keith’s “Don’t Let the Old Man In.” Inspired by a conversation Keith had with Clint Eastwood, it’s a perfect fit for Willie, who could easily have written these words about his own determination to keep working and creating in defiance of father time: “Ask yourself how old you’d be, if you didn’t know the day you were born.”
In a similar vein, but less potent, is “Stealing Home,” written by producer Cannon’s daughter Marla Cannon-Goodman with Casey Beathard and Don Sampson. Its wistful reflections on the passage of time are well-intentioned, but a meandering melody and less-concise verses keep it from sticking. It’s one of two misses on the album; the other, surprisingly, comes from red-hot country star Chris Stapleton, who’s written some great songs in recent years. “Our Song” isn’t one of them, a lifeless ballad that scrolls by almost unnoticed on “First Rose of Spring.”
Besides Keith’s contribution, the track that may warrant the most attention here is “We Are the Cowboys.” A 1981 Billy Joe Shaver tune that Nelson actually recorded once before on a collaborative album with Shaver, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson, the song deserves a new lease on life because of its timeliness in 2020. Shaver brilliantly sets it up as a typical good-ol’-boys yarn in the first two verses before a striking turn in the third and fourth, explaining that the cowboys he’s talking about are “Texicans, Mexicans, Black men and Jews/They love this old world and they don’t want to lose it.” Then he drives it home: “There are those who are blind, so we’ll all have to lead them.” Willie sings every word like he means it just as much as Shaver did.
But it’s the album’s next-to-last track, “Love Just Laughed,” that may point the way forward for Willie’s next phase. It’s unlike anything Nelson and Cannon have written to date. Their collaborative run has been marked largely by wryly humorous numbers such as “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die” and “I Woke Up Still Not Dead Again Today,” but “Love Just Laughed” is deep, dark and bluesy: “That’s all that I remember, it was a bitter cold December … Love just laughed, and then love cried.” In the middle, Willie cuts loose on his trusty guitar Trigger, sounding full of life and freshly energized — and ready to ride off toward new horizons.
Here’s the lyric video for the title track:
Third Root, “Passion of the Poets.” “The new collection from the Central Texas hip-hop crew … is a battle cry from the trenches of America’s social justice struggle that rises to meet the current moment,” writes the American-Statesman’s Deborah Sengupta Stith in our Austin360 Artist of the Month feature for July. Here’s the opening track, “Born to Rhyme,” featuring Black Pumas:
“No More Silence, Vol. 2: Austin Musicians for Transformative Justice.“ The follow-up to an initial volume released two weeks ago, this second set features 17 songs by a broad range of local acts contributing songs designed ”to amplify a message of unity, to amplify BIPOC voices and to raise funds for the NAACP and the Austin Justice Coalition,“ according to the Bandcamp page where the compilations are being sold. Contributors this time around include Jackie Venson, Kalu & the Electric Joint, Shinyribs, Cilantro Boombox, Wood & Wire and Mother Falcon. Here’s Tje Austin’s track ”I Can’t Breathe“:
Mandolin Orange, “Austin City Limits Live at the Moody Theater.” A digital release for the online seller Bandcamp’s latest day of waiving its revenue share to support artists during the pandemic (this one on July 3), this 17-song set captures the North Carolina acoustic band at the top of its game in a Jan. 23 concert at Austin’s marquee downtown music hall. Here’s our American-Statesman review of that concert:
JULY 10: Ray Wylie Hubbard, “Co-starring” (Big Machine)
JULY 10: Greyhounds, “Primates” (Nine Mile)
JULY 17: David Ramirez, “My Love Is a Hurricane” (Sweetworld/Thirty Tigers)
JULY 17: Mobley, “A Home Unfamiliar” (visual album)
JULY 24: Seela, “Cool”
JULY 30: Barbara Nesbitt, “Someday, Maybe Sooner”
JULY 31: Margaret Chavez, “Into an Atmosphere” (We Know Better)
AUG. 21: Malik, “Spectrum” (Artium).
AUG. 28: Wood & Wire, “No Matter Where It Goes From Here” (Blue Corn)
SEPT. 4: Bill Callahan, “Gold Record” (Drag City)
SEPT. 4: Jackie Venson, “Vintage Machine”
SEPT. 25: Band of Heathens, “Stranger”
A weekly roundup of new, recent and upcoming releases by local and Austin-associated recording artists.