Willie Nelson has now been releasing music for over seven decades, since the 1950s. Yet his enthusiasm for finding great songs remains unmatched: See “The First Rose of Spring,” the title track of his new album, written by Nashville pros Randy Houser, Allen Shamblin and Mark Beeson, a perfectly-crafted love song with a tragic ending; it’s the kind of track made for Nelson to deliver, and he plays a gorgeous, melody-shaking solo on his ragged guitar Trigger. After writing many of the songs on 2018’s Last Man Standing and 2019’s Ride Me Back Home, Nelson embraces the songs of his commercial country friends on his new album, covering melancholy songs by Toby Keith, Chris Stapleton and more.
The highlights are when Nelson sings the songs of his old friends: His cover of Johnny Paycheck’s 1977 outlaw rocker “I’m the Only Kinda Hell My Mama Ever Raised” is a blast; Sharing a similar melody with Nelson’s 70s outlaw classic anthem “Me and Paul,” Nelson sings about turning to a life of crime for money, robbing a liquor store and winding up in jail, where he’s longing for the good old days. And his his cover of Billy Joe Shaver’s “We are the Cowboys” is even more timely than it was when it was released in 1981: “Cowboys are average American people,” Nelson sings, “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 there counting on you.”