For millennia, humans set their course by the stars. These fiery celestial lighthouses that burned with such eternal constancy served as a compass point for our major journeys. At 86 years young, country legend Willie Nelson still burns brightly enough to set our course.
Nelson’s 94th (yes, really) studio album, First Rose of Spring feels like a meditation on mortality and a bit like a musical last will and testament. Almost all of the songs on the album seem to look back on a long life with an earnest mixture of appreciation, regret and nostalgia.
The album’s second track, “Blue Star,” is one of a pair that Nelson composed for the album with longtime producer and collaborator Buddy Cannon. The song features Nelson playing an arpeggiated chord progression on his iconic nylon-stringed guitar, Trigger, over a bed of pedal steel guitar. Although twangy, the song sounds more pop than country. Nelson’s voice simmers with lilting tension and release as the singer reflects on his own mortality, “And if I beat you to the end/ I’ve had a big head start, its true/ We’re just riding on the wind/ Still the same ol’ me and you/ And when we reach the heaven’s bright/ I’ll be the blue star on your right.”
The album’s penultimate track, “Love Just Laughed,” the other Nelson and Cannon original on the album, turns up the twang with Merle-Haggard-style electric guitar and harmonica before subsiding to a sparser bed of acoustic guitar for the verses. Nelson imparts some painfully learned wisdom during the song’s chorus, singing, “Love is still laughing/ But you can’t go back/ What’s done is done/ And that’s a fact/ But it was fun in a strange kind of way/ We can look back and smile and say/ Whatever happened brought us down to today/ And love just laughed/ And then love cried.” The song’s complex messaging is the result of a beautiful combination of Willie Nelson’s words and his heartfelt delivery.
Nelson’s cover of country superstar Toby Keith’s “Don’t Let the Old Man In” juxtaposes the singer’s pleading for more life, with a gentle adult contemporary amalgam of acoustic guitar and harmonica. The upbeat honky tonk of “I’m the Only Hell My Mama Ever Raised,” written by Wayne Kemp, Bobby Borchers and Mack Vickery in 1975, looks back on a life of troublemaking. The song’s verse about marijuana seems especially apt for the famously baked Nelson, who sings, “She told me not to smoke it/ But I did and it took me far away/ And I turned out to be/ The only hell my mama ever raised.”
The album’s closing song, “Yesterday When I Was Young (Heir Encore),” written by Charles Aznavour and Herbert Kretzmer, feels like a coda to more than just the album, but to Nelson’s long and storied career as well. The string-heavy song featuring some of Nelson’s most aerobic guitar playing, and drips with a sense of both finality and regret. Sings Nelson: “There are so many songs in me that won’t be sung/ I feel the bitter taste of tears upon my tongue/ The time has come for me to pay for/ Yesterday, when I was young.”
Nelson’s voice, like Miles Davis’ trumpet tone or the sound of Jimi Hendrix’s overdriven Marshall amps, is instantly identifiable. The red-headed stranger’s gravelly warble is as iconic as Morgan Freeman’s narrator voice. Nelson’s voice is elemental, like hydrogen or carbon, a primary constituent of matter, something that can be broken down no further. Nelson’s legendary status as an artist and as an American derives not just from the distinctiveness of his voice, but from the constancy of his of identity, and for his lack of pretense. On First Rose of Spring Nelson seems to be eyeing the exit while reminding us how nice he is to have around.