Black Music Matters Festival

Willie Nelson

First Rose of Spring – 2020 (Sony Legacy)

Reviewed by Lee Zimmerman

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It's been obvious for some time now that Willie Nelson is essentially super human. At the age of 87, he's as active as ever, a wizened presence, spiritual icon and guiding light for all those that adore country music and Americana. His prowess and proficiency remain undiminished, and the multiple albums he releases on a regular basis attest to the fact that he's not ready to retire any time soon...or ever even as far as that goes.

While many of Nelson's recent works have leaned towards a concept of some kind, "First Rose of Spring" remains somewhat straight forward by comparison. He doesn't venture beyond any established template and focuses instead on an easy caress and croon. The majority of the album is cast in the form of supple ballads, of which the title track, "Blue Star," "Don't Let the Old Man In," "Our Song" and "Stealing Home" are ideal examples. Not surprisingly, there's a certain poignancy inserted in many of these songs, a reflective notion stirred by memories of times gone by and the people and places that provided a touchstone on his life's journey.

That said, Willie still retains that devilish streak that made him a mainstay of the outlaw movement as formalized back in the '70s. "I'm The Only Hell My Mama Ever Raised," once a Top 10 country single for Johnny Paycheck, and a proverbial favorite as recorded by George Jones and Hank Williams III, syncs well with Nelson's signature style. Likewise, Billy Joe Shaver's classic "We Are the Cowboys" gets a welcome revisit here, transformed into a stirring anthem that speaks to the need to protect the rights of everyone who resides in this nation today, regardless of national origin, racial group or religion.

"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."

It's the kind of ideal encouragement that's so sorely needed in these troubled times.

Willie finishes on a nostalgic note courtesy of his cover of Charles Aznavour's perennial standard "Yesterday When I Was Young," a song that finds Nelson looking back on his life through a rear-view mirror. It's a bittersweet ballad that suggests there's a finality that sums up all that's been left behind. It's a decidedly downcast way to end, but one can only hope that unlike the narrator in the song, Willie isn't about to call it quits any time soon. Indeed, this "First Rose of Spring" still smells sweet indeed.

Lee Zimmerman is a freelance writer and author based in Maryville, Tenn. He also expounds on music on his web site, Stories Beyond the Music - Americana Music Reviews, Interviews & Articles. His book, "Americana Music - Voices, Visionaries and Pioneers of an Honest Sound," is available from Texas A&M University Publishing.