By Mikal Gilmore
In 2019, with Ride Me Back Home [LISTEN], Willie Nelson seemed to be winding up a trilogy — begun in 2017 with God’s Problem Child [LISTEN], followed by 2018’s Last Man Standing [LISTEN]— that was largely about mortality. It doesn’t seem surprising that an 87-year-old singer should have the subject in mind, though it’s not something Nelson is necessarily solemn about. In God’s Problem Child’s “Still Not Dead Today,” he addressed the matter of death hoaxes that had alarmed fans and plagued his family with a life-affirming honky-tonk beat, targeting in particular a troubling website report that Nelson had been found dead on his property by a groundskeeper: “Well, I woke up still not dead again today/The gardener did not find me that a way…/I woke up still not dead again today.” In Last Man Standing’s title song — another rowdy-sounding contemplation of life’s bound-to-happen closure, he sang: “I don’t wanna be the last man standin’/Or, wait a minute, maybe I do…/Go on in front if you’re in such a hurry/Like heaven ain’t waitin’ for you.”
This isn’t to suggest Nelson didn’t take the matter seriously. In that same title, he sang: “It’s getting hard to watch my pals check out/It cuts like a wore out knife/One thing I’ve learned about running the road/Is forever don’t apply to life. /Waylon and Ray and Merle…/Lived just as fast as me/I’ve still got a lot of good friends left/And I wonder who the next will be.” He was referring to the deaths of his friends — Waylon Jennings, Ray Price and Merle Haggard. When I once remarked to him that his recent records — which, in addition to this trilogy, have included a duet volume with Merle Haggard and tributes to Ray Price, George Gershwin and Frank Sinatra) amount to an extraordinary period for him, his dark brown eyes flinched. “Considering the fact that we’ve lost a lot of good friends, ‘extraordinary’ is one word for it,” he said. ‘Unfortunate’ is another. You get mixed emotions about all those things.” Buddy Cannon, Nelson’s producer and co-writer of many years (they first worked together in 2008), noted at the time that it’s only in the songs that Willie is willing to address the subject. “I haven’t had any, like, ‘death conversations’ with Willie,” he says. “As far as our songs go, we don’t talk about them. We just write them. But it’s pretty obvious, you know? None of us are getting any younger. People are falling away too quickly anymore.”
First Rose of Spring [LISTEN]seems at first a departure from honky-tonk mortality tales. It’s more plaintive sounding, even rapturous at times, and love — in one way or another — is all over these songs. In the title track — by Randy Houser, Allen Shamblin and Mark Beeson — that opens the album, an acoustic guitar’s gentle lacework and the married tones of Mickey Raphael’s harmonica and Mike Johnson’s pedal steel (the “wistful instruments,” says Raphael) create a lulling bedding of sound, as Willie depicts a love-struck awakening: “The first time that he saw her/He knew everything had changed/Overnight love started blooming/Like the first rose of spring.” It’s a rendering of hope in a season of birth and renewal, and the music swells with a steady rhythmic accompaniment that works like a safeguard for hope. Over the next few verses a life of fulfillment unfolds for the narrator whose perspective guides the story. The woman “colored his life, opened his eyes/To things he’d never dream…/Gave him children like a garden/They gave ’em all the love they’d need.” In turn, the man is enduringly grateful: “every year he’d bring her/The first rose of spring.” That is, every year he bestowed upon her a symbolic renewal of their original promise.
Then, as the song nears its end, that safeguard rhythm — the pulse of hope — drops out and the steel wails faintly, like a dream’s vestige. “The last time he saw her,” sings Willie, “He knew everything had changed/He said goodbye and let the tears fall like rain/On the first rose of spring.” Days after hearing the track the first few times I told Cannon I found Willie’s delivery of those moments quietly devastating. The tale turned abruptly from an idyll to a heartbreak — a portrayal of a love that lived until it couldn’t live anymore, the dissolution of a marriage in a couple’s later years. The song doesn’t dwell on it — it’s just one concise verse about a marriage that seemed made for the ages but then lost its promise. Then again, the lyric didn’t need to expound: The rose that, at the beginning, was a symbol of hope ends up covered with tears. It’s now more a funeral flower than a blossoming.
“If I’m not mistaken,” Cannon replied, “this may be the song that was the trigger point to get this album started. I’d sent it to Willie a while back, then one day he e-mailed me and said, ‘I love this song — let’s go in and cut it.’ I guess he had been listening to it. That was before we had started recording the album.” But Cannon also told me that my reading of the song was off — there was a different sorrow at work than the one I’d heard. “It’s a true story, about Randy Houser’s in-laws.”
Houser is a Nashville singer-songwriter who has written for Trace Adkins and Jessie James, as well as recording several albums of his own, including 2019’s Magnolia. “’First Rose of Spring,’ he told me, “is about my wife’s grandmother and her grandfather. They lived on top of this building in Melbourne, Australia. The two of them were life partners — you know, soul mates. He grew roses up there and every year he would bring her the first rose out of the garden. He was a very strong man — a man of stature in business, used to running everything — but he knew he wouldn’t have gone anywhere in life if it hadn’t been for his wife. She got cancer — this was a couple of years ago — and when she was near the end, he walked in with a rose, the first rose of spring. He was saying his good-bye. My wife was present and sent a photo of the moment while he was standing there. I got the idea of wanting to write about this I had the melody and the first lines, and then I took it two master songwriters who I knew, Allen Shamblin and Mark Beeson. That way I knew it wouldn’t get screwed up.” Shamblin had written songs recorded by Randy Travis, Peter, Paul and Mary, Bonnie Raitt and Mark Wills; Beeson had written for Pat Green, Martina McBride, LeAnn Rhimes and Blake Shelton. “I wanted to honor what that couple went through but truth is, I never heard anybody singing the song other than Willie. I never pitched Willie a song before — never thought I had anything good enough to pitch him.”
What was it in Willie’s voice that made Houser write the song with him in mind?
“It wasn’t just Willie’s voice,” he replied, “but Willie’s life. This is a story that a person with experience should be telling — not a 44-year-old singer like myself. Willie asked me at one point, ‘You’re not going to put that song out yourself?’ I told him, ‘Willie, that’s your song. That song was started for you. I don’t believe me as much as I do you on this song.’”
Did I say that First Rose of Spring seemed a departure from the mortality cycle? Instead, mortality is there right at the start — but it sneaks up on us. What makes the moment so effective is how it weaves memory with tense. That is, it’s a past tense song that, in the intimacy Willie’s voice, feels like a present-tense story — like something the singer chooses, or more likely needs, to share with you directly. But he doesn’t tell you what he’s going to tell you until he tells you. It’s a simple but powerful story-telling technique, and Houser is right in thinking that Nelson imbues it with a distinctive believability. This is a trait that Willie has put to good use in his nearly sixty years of record making. He does it so well, in fact, that we sometimes receive a song that Willie didn’t write — for example, “Always on my Mind” — foremost as a Willie song. He share’s this skill with his favorite singer, Frank Sinatra, who is also closely identified with songs he sang but didn’t write, yet we reflexively identify them as Sinatra’s. (Nelson himself recorded a whole volume of then on 2018’s My Way [LISTEN].) Willie, of course, has written dozens of his own evergreens; Sinatra only helped pen one, “I’m a Fool to Want You.” But no matter: Sinatra owned a song when he performed it. “Whatever else has been said about me,” once told an interviewer, “is unimportant. When I sing, I believe.” Nelson employs that same approach — as colloquial as it is musical — in “First Rose of Spring” and elsewhere on this album. It’s as if he is sitting in some room, after midnight, talking to someone — to a friend, to you, to me — sharing a living thought or an enduring memory. That style was one of the reasons that, in the 1960s and early 1970s, Nashville producers didn’t figure out how to record Nelson. They thought his singing was too colloquial: It disregarded strict tempo — it would quicken or slacken — though without altering the overall pace. Nashville couldn’t accommodate that idiosyncrasy. Like Sinatra — or Billie Holiday, for that matter — Nelson was trying to tell a story as much as sing a song. Of course, this is now recognized as an essential quality of Willie’s greatness, and Buddy Cannon knows how to accommodate it to its best effect. “Willie’s a jazz singer,” he says, “and jazz player. He’s an improvisational musician. Why play and sing the parts over and over and over? It’s going to be different every time. Get a good one and go with it…. There’s no coaching Willie. It would take someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing, at least where he’s concerned, to go out there and try to tell him how to sing.”
Indeed, Willie always finds a matchless way with a song, and that includes the ones he hasn’t written himself, by others he admires. (Bob Dylan once noted that when Willie Nelson sings a song, then it has been sung.) One such songwriter is Chris Stapleton, whose “Our Song” Nelson premieres here. Willie’s longtime harmonica player Mickey Raphael had also recorded and performed with Stapleton whose been seen by some as continuing the Outlaw tradition and whose music plumbs depths of loss and love. “Chris is just one of these great songwriters and great guys and great guitar players,” says Raphael. “Willie had heard me talk about him or play some of his music, then he became a fan of his too. It’s kind of a natural fit, the two of them. I was with Chris one time and he said, ‘I wrote this song for Willie.’ He played it for me and I said, ‘You’ve got to send it to him.’ Chris was kind of hemming and hawing, but then he just got out his iPhone and recut a demo right there in the dressing room. I pushed him to send it to Buddy.” The producer immediately liked it. “I sent it down to Willie and he liked it, too,” says Buddy. “I had Chris come in and sing the scratch vocal on it when we cut the track, so I could get it as close to the way I was feeling it as I could.” The result is something that’s brand new yet feels like a pledge of love and grace that’s already indelible in our memory: “In these miles that we have traveled/You’ve watched me come unraveled/And you’ve put me back together again,” Nelson sings in a voice that recognizes the song’s frame of heart. “And when darkness hung around/You kept my feet there on the ground/And you held me like a lover and a friend.” “It’s kind of Willie-esque,” says Cannon. Says Stapleton: “I can easily say Willie Nelson is one of my biggest musical influences. For me it just doesn’t get any better than hearing him sing a song I wrote.”
That intimate manner of Nelson’s — his ability to talk to us directly — and his attraction to telling stories in which the singer and the listener are living in the same moment, also interact with how memory works in two other songs here, including “I’ll Break Out Again Tonight.” The song — a different kind of prison tale — was written by Whitey Shafer and Doodle Owens for an underrated 1974 Merle Haggard album, If We Make It Through December, and it fit that late artist’s persona as a one-time convict. Haggard’s version played as a late-night barroom account, more honky-tonk than doleful, whereas Willie’s feels more chilling: It’s solitary. The song’s title alone seems to be setting us up for a jailbreak tale. Instead, a prisoner takes us inside his mind, where the only escape available to him, night after night, is in the form of dreams and imagination: “These walls and bars can’t hold a dreamin’ man,” intones Willie, “So I’ll be home to tuck the babies in/They can chain my body, but not my mind/And I’ll break out again tonight.” Cannon told me: “The guy’s a little bit out of his mind, but in being out of his mind he found a way to live. It’s how he stays close to the people he loves.”
Internal brooding also figures into “Stealing Home,” a song by Buddy’s daughter, Marla Cannon-Goodman (with Casey Beathard and Don Sampson), an unwanted past becomes a haunting present. “Being young got old, I couldn’t wait to grow up,” the singer relates. “When I finally hit 18 I got out of this tired old town.” But on a return visit, the singer realizes that something inestimable got forsworn by fleeing, and can’t be found again: “Little sister’s not right down the hall/Rex ain’t around to fetch his ball/No need to ride to grandma’s down the road/Damn old Father Time for stealing home.” Marla, who also co-wrote “Unfair Weather Friend” on Nelson’s 2015 album with Merle Haggard, Django and Jimmy, wrote the song eighteen years ago and had long imagined Nelson recording it. “I knew he liked it because he told me he did,” she says. “I kept thinking, ‘Maybe one of these days, maybe one of these days.’ Then, finally…one of these days.” It proved worth the wait. Like Randy Houser, Marla knew the voice it was meant for. “It’s funny being a songwriter,” she says, “because you hear the song a certain way in your head. But the way it makes me feel in my head now is the way Willie sounds when he sings it.”
The other considerable theme on First Rose of Spring is age. “Blue Star,” which follows “First Rose of Spring” feels of a piece with the prior song, “First Rose of Spring.” Indeed, it could work as a sequel, if death can be said to have a sequel. The music fits the same tone of reverie of the title song, and the lyrics move in the same straits of undying love. “You know I’ll follow you to the end,” sings Nelson, “Whenever that is we both will know. /And I will follow you again/Anywhere that love can go.” The singer is implicitly older than the person he is singing to; he knows he’s the one who could go first: “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 singer is talking to the person he loves, and whom he doesn’t intend to leave forever when life ends. He’ll be out there, waiting.
Willie also mines the subject of age in other key songs here: neo-traditionalist country artist Toby Keith’s “Don’t Let the Old Man In,” and “French chanteur and songwriter Charles Aznavour “Yesterday When I Was Young.” Keith was 58 when he wrote “Don’t Let the Old Man In,” for Clint Eastwood’s 2018 film The Mule. Both the song and the film are about the same thing: an aged man who won’t let his age impede him. When Toby premiered the song, he related the tale of playing at Eastwood’s Carmel golf tournament in 2018 when he learned that the actor’s 88th birthday was coming up in two days. Toby asked the actor how he planned to celebrate the occasion and Eastwood said: “Funny you should ask. I am leaving tomorrow to shoot a movie for three months called The Mule.” Keith was surprised. At his age and stature, Eastwood could easily have retired. He didn’t have to make or appear in films anymore. Toby wondered where that sort of energy comes from. Eastwood replied: “I just get up every morning and go out. And I don’t let the old man in.” Keith thought, “I’m writing that.” What Toby came up with was a statement of understanding: He put himself in the shoes of somebody 30 years older than himself and envisioned the person’s mettle: “I knew all of my life, that someday it would end/Get up and go outside, don’t let the old man in.” After Eastwood heard it, he featured the song over the film’s closing credits. And when Buddy Cannon heard it, he wanted to bring Willie’s voice to it. “I think it’s the best song Toby Keith’s ever written,” says the producer. Though Keith wrote “Don’t Let the Old Man In” for Eastwood, it could have been tailor-made for Nelson as his credo. Sings Willie: “I knew all of my life/That someday it would end/Get up and go outside/Don’t let the old man in/Many moons I have lived/My body’s weathered and worn/Ask yourself how old you’d be/If you didn’t know the day you were born.” In Willie’s case, not letting the old man in has been a way of life for some time. Says Toby Keith about Nelson’s recording of the song: “Through the years I’ve always enjoyed the many times I’ve got to share a guitar or a stage or a song with Willie. It’s truly an honor anytime he records one of my songs. ‘Don’t Let the Old Man In’: He killed it.”
Though Charles Aznavour (once dubbed a “French pop deity” by the New York Times) was 94 when died in 2018, like Keith he wrote a masterpiece about old age while he was still relatively young — just 54, in 1964. “Yesterday When I Was Young” assumed the outlook of a man nearing the end of his life, looking back at his younger wastrel years, realizing he’d bypassed his better self and it was now too late to reclaim lost time. Buddy Cannon says he long had the idea of Nelson recording the song, but held off. “I guess I was thinking maybe he wouldn’t want to sing about not being young anymore, but eventually he sent it to me. I was excited about getting a chance to do that song because it is a great piece of material. Willie’s version is like a Sinatra song — a crooner song. The chord structure and melody are more pop than country. You could have plugged that song into the Stardust album. It’s just a classic saloon-vibe.”
“Yesterday When I Was Young” is certainly an interesting choice for Willie Nelson. Some lines fit him well: “Yesterday, when I was young/So many happy songs were waiting to be sung.” Others, though, don’t. When he sings, “There are so many songs in me that won’t be sung…/The time has come for me to pay for/Yesterday, when I was young,” it’s hard to envision Willie with that brand of contrition. After all, almost nobody has sung so many songs. and sung them so definitively. as Willie Nelson. What moves us about this version, though, is that like Sinatra, when Nelson sings, he believes. That’s more than method acting: It’s empathy — which is Willie’s single greatest facet as a singer. He understands the down-deep experience of his subjects because, matchless accomplishments or not, he also has felt such pain and yearning. Willie can commune with regret because he’s felt it — and just as important, he commiserates with those, young and old, who have felt also loss or remorse.
Just as important, Willie Nelson’s singing also signifies affinity for those who feel dispossessed. On last year’s Ride Me Back Home he covered Guy Clark and Roger Murrah’s “Immigrant Eyes. This time he covers something by another giant of Texas songwriting and poetry, Billy Joe Shaver. Billy Joe is the originator of country music’s 1970s Outlaws movement. Shaver’s larger-than-life and roughhewn, and widely revered — elegant in his words, and loving and compassionate to not just friends but to those in need of tolerance and mercy.
“We Are the Cowboys” is a surprisingly little-known song, first recorded by Shaver on I’m Just an Old Chunk of Coal in 1981, and again on an album, Honky Tonk Heroes, by a collective of Shaver, Willie, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson in 1999 (produced by Shaver’s late son, Eddy, at Nelson’s studio in Pedernales, Texas). Willie wanted to record a new rendition because, as was the case with “Immigrant Eyes,” this is a statement whose time has come again. Like much of what’s on First Rose of Spring, the song begins in familiar territory then delivers you someplace surprising. “The cowboys are riding tall in the saddle/They shoot from the heart with the songs that they play/We are the cowboys, the true sons of freedom/We are the men who will get the job done.” This is familiar enough iconic imagery, but then the song proclaims the sort creed not heard before in cowboy anthems: “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.” When Mickey Raphael and I were discussing the song he said, “I don’t know that many Jewish cowboys, but the metaphor there is fabulous.” And brave. We come to think of a cowboy, as Cannon pointed out to me, as “the good guy — the guy in the white hat,” but we might not readily think of the cowboy as standing for equal racial rights and social goodwill. In spotlighting the song, Willie makes plain that that’s what the truly good guys should be doing, for the sake of us all: “The world will breathe easy when we stop the bleeding/The fighting will end when all hunger is gone/There are those who are blind so we’ll all have to lead them/It’s everyone’s job till we get the work done.” If “We Are the Cowboys” is a song overlooked for nearly forty years, Willie Nelson has brought it back alive at just the right time, and he infuses it with the sorrow and hope that our land today calls for.
First Rose of Spring, then, is another remarkable entry by Willie Nelson in a latter-day canon that began with God’s Problem Child in 2017, and has continued through Last Man Standing and Ride Me Back Home. I called those first three albums a trilogy, but with this work (as well as the 2018 Sinatra tribute, My Way) maybe it’s better to think of these as a cycle. At the same time, descriptors like trilogy and cycle are just a critic’s construction, imposed on a continuing series of some of the finest original albums that any artist has produced, in any genre, in his or her autumnal phase. As Buddy Cannon told me, they didn’t set out with the idea of creating a unified body of work. “When we’re making a record we’re just trying to find the best songs we can find and that I can get the singer to agree with me on. They don’t begin as cohesive albums on the front end. It’s more about me finding ten or twelve songs fit well together. If something doesn’t fit, you discard it and find something that does fit.”
Still, the themes are there: mortality, heartbreak, memory and courage and American ideals, with love and death as the great levelers. But then Willie Nelson has always sung about these things, with inimitable insight and grace. A while back, when I brought up the idea of these works as making for a collective whole, Cannon said, “Just think of each album as the page of a book. Willie never stops turning the pages.” Nelson himself acknowledged as much on last year’s Ride Me Back Home: “I’ve got one more song to write/I’ve got one more bridge to burn/I’ve got one more endless night/One more lesson to be learned…/ There ain’t no secrets left to hide/My life’s an open book/Turn the page and have a look.” It’s a testament to the man and his art that we so often find traces of ourselves and our land on those pages.