Willie Nelson offers end-of-the-road life lessons on First Rose of Spring | Music Review | Chicago Reader

Willie Nelson offers end-of-the-road life lessons on First Rose of Spring 

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click to enlarge Willie Nelson

Willie Nelson

Courtesy the Artist

Melancholy shoots right out of the gate on Willie Nelson’s new full-length, First Rose of Spring. The album opens with its title track, a sweet but ultimately tragic love song by a trio of stalwart Nashville songwriters: Allen Shamblin (Bonnie Raitt), Marc Beeson (LeAnn Rimes, Blake Shelton), and Randy Houser (who hit number two on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart in 2009 performing his own “Boots On”). Nelson’s no-frills singing and plaintive solo on his trusty acoustic guitar, Trigger, make “First Rose of Spring” an anchor for the wistful, contemplative songs ahead. Like Nelson’s other recent releases, including 2018’s Last Man Standing and last year’s Ride Me Back Home, the new album is filled with end-of-the-road thoughts and tributes to compadres who have passed away. Who better than the Willie Nelson to deliver such reflections? At 87 years old, he still sings with a pointed clarity, as though he wants you to truly hear every word. Nelson and longtime cowriter and producer Buddy Cannon keep up the elegiac tone with heartbreaking songs such as “Blue Star,” but there are also a few uplifting moments, including covers of Toby Keith’s “Don’t Let the Old Man In” (written for a 2018 Clint Eastwood movie of the same name) and a timely resurrection of Billy Joe Shaver’s 1981 “We Are the Cowboys,” a dissection of the cowboy-as-hero mythology that centers white men as saviors. “Cowboys are average American people / Texicans, Mexicans, Black men, and Jews,” Nelson sings, his intimate, uncomplicated vocal approach helping the message speak loudly—he’s just one average cowboy, speaking on behalf of others like him. First Rose is full of perspectives that only a man with Nelson’s lived experience can offer. It’s a collection of good old-fashioned country songs, delivered with the soulful spirit of a true country great.   v

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