Too many rock and pop stars have died before their time. But some have survived the vicissitudes of this peripatetic business and continue to make new music into their senior years. In recent weeks, new albums have been released by 79-year-old Bob Dylan and 80-year-old Dion.
Now comes Willie Nelson with his 70th album, the latest in a late flurry of work that has emerged from his songwriting and production partnership with Buddy Cannon — one that has often taken him beyond the realm of country music. At 87, Nelson is moving from autumn towards the winter of his life and this is reflected in his choice of material: wistful, reflective, wry, though never maudlin. If the end is in sight, Nelson is moving towards it with candour, warmth and love in his heart.
The First Rose of Spring begins with the title track (written by Randy Houser, Allen Shamblin and Mark Beeson). Nelson has always been a storyteller in song, and this is a story with a bleak twist. “Blue Star”, one of two new songs co-written by Nelson and Cannon, could, in the hands of other singers, be a hokey tear-jerker. But Nelson’s genius as a singer is to imbue his songs with the depth of real, lived experience and a profound emotional authenticity.
His delivery is at times conversational, almost even throwaway — which, ironically, makes even the most commonplace sentiments seem profound. His voice, meanwhile, seems entirely untouched by the passage of time; weathered and seasoned, like fine timber, but showing no signs of wear. It’s a remarkable thing.
The tempo quickens with the prison song “I’ll Break Out Again Tonight”. “They can chain my body but not my mind,” sings Nelson as a lachrymose steel guitar gently wails.
Periodically we hear flurries of notes on Nelson’s battered gut-strung guitar Trigger, an instrument so fabled that it has its own Wikipedia page. No fumbling, no stumbling — Nelson seems as fluent as ever. And throughout, we hear the wheeze, howl and grumble of longtime collaborator Mickey Raphael’s harmonica, especially resonant on “Don’t Let the Old Man In”, on which old age is personified as a sort of doorstopper who must be repelled.
The album’s pinnacle is “We Are the Cowboys”, previously recorded in 1994 by Nelson with Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson and the song’s writer Billy Joe Shaver. This exquisite ballad seems at first to be standard country fare, a paean to the men who are “the true sons of freedom”. But then it takes a wondrous turn: “Cowboys are average American people/Texicans Mexicans black men and Jews/They love this old world and they don’t want to lose it/They’re counting on me and they’re counting on you.”
Nelson concludes with the reflective classic “Yesterday When I Was Young (Hier Encore)”, written by Charles Aznavour when he was a mere stripling of 54. Here the sentiments shift from wistful to regretful: “I feel the bitter taste of tears upon my tongue.” It’s not a typical Nelson song, but perhaps it resonated because Aznavour continued to perform up to his death at the age of 94.
‘The First Rose of Spring’ is released by Legacy Recordings
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