It is tempting to say that Willie Nelson is the greatest country musician of all time, full stop. Few other figures have been able to maintain a similar profile, both musically and culturally, but none have been able to replicate his laid-back attitude and none have been able to convince us that they're barely even trying as well as Nelson has. It says a lot about an artist when they are able to maintain a level of success and popularity purely on the basis of doing pretty much whatever they want whenever they want. "First Rose of Spring” was released on July 3 off Legacy Records, and here we find Willie recording tracks not by classic artists as he typically does in such releases, but rather songs written by modern artists instead. And just like pretty much everything else Willie Nelson does, it works in the way only he could make it.
"First Rose of Spring" is highly reminiscent of much of Nelson's best known work, in the sense that it employs a classical country arrangement style with all the benefits of modern recording technology. While listening, one could be forgiven for thinking they were listening to an album of genre standards instead of original tracks. The sole exception is the closing track, "Yesterday When I Was Young," which is a cover of a Roy Clark song. That aside, the album is mostly strongly evocative of Nelson's breakout album "Stardust," reflecting the polish and craftsmanship of the old fashioned country music Nelson was raised on.
Unlike many stars of similar age, Nelson's voice has not diminished in the slightest over the years. To be sure, his register is slightly more callow than in his heyday, but that just gives him a slight air of stateliness that he lacked in his youth. This is most readily apparent on the songs "Blue Star'' and the title track that also serves as the album opener. Meanwhile, the songs "I'll Break Out Again Tonight" and "Just Bummin' Around'' are light-hearted pieces that display the playful and conversational style longtime Nelson fans will be familiar with. And for the record, "Stealing Home" made me cry.
Nelson's great strength on this album is the command he wields over his own voice. Instantly recognizable and yet almost endlessly adaptable, Nelson's vocal chops are essential to his style and he uses them to magnificent effect on this entire record. Swapping between sincerity, sentimentality and irreverence as it suits him, there is hardly a dull moment to be found on "First Rose of Spring." Nelson could sing a rendition of the hokie pokie and it would have a decent chance of becoming a hit.
"First Rose of Spring" is an excellent addition to Willie Nelson's discography. It's an interesting shakeup of his usual formula for laid-back records that employs modern songwriters for old fashioned tracks. It allows songwriters and artists to, in a sense, create a throwback album with songs that have never existed before. This is hardly the first time Nelson has reached back into the past, in terms of both style and substance, in order to create great music, and it certainly deserves its place in his long and winding career as America’s favorite hippie outlaw rockstar. It may be a great irony that Nelson, a singer whose reputation grew from an unwillingness to embrace the formulaic machine of Nashville in the 1960s by writing his own songs, would still nonetheless be able to crank out albums that could have easily competed with the kind of music that the Nashville machine dedicated itself to creating for decades. But hey, Willie doesn’t seem too concerned about that and neither should we.
I give “First Rose of Spring” 4.5/5 stars.