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Willie Nelson’s ‘First Rose of Spring’ finally blooms

UPDATED: Thu., July 2, 2020

By Ed Condran The Spokesman-Review

Keith Richards, Ozzy Osbourne and Willie Nelson are among the short list of legendary drug-friendly musicians who beat the odds and remain alive and well. There have been many rumors about the demise of the latter. The laid-back, cannabis-loving singer-songwriter responded with the amusing “Still Not Dead Today” after word spread that he checked out a few years ago.

The under-heralded country track, which appears on Nelson’s 2017 release “God’s Problem Child,” is clever and catchy. “Well, I woke up still not dead again today / The gardener did not find me that way / You can’t believe a word that people say / And I woke up still not dead again today.”

Nelson, 87, is the same age as Little Richard, who passed away during the spring. The maverick entertainer has watched as close friends Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash left the studio and the earth.

Who knows how long Nelson will stick around, so fans should enjoy him while he continues to create. Nelson gives the masses another opportunity with the poignant “First Rose of Spring,” which drops Friday. Yes, with a title like that, the album, Nelson’s 70th, was slated for a March release, but it was delayed due to the pandemic.

It’s a shame since perhaps the new material would have been previewed at Nelson’s annual party, the Luck Reunion, at his Spicewood, Texas, ranch, which runs concurrently with the nearby Austin music conference South By Southwest.

The Luck Reunion is a can’t-miss party and is a reminder of the live entertainment music void. Nelson knows how to throw a bash, and he also can deliver a deep, provocative album.

Nelson looks back throughout “First Rose of Spring.” Woody Harrelson’s best buddy exercises the right to reflect on a life as an uncompromising musician who made daring choices and never received enough credit as a songwriter.

Such hits as Patsy Cline’s “Crazy,” “Pretty Paper” by Roy Orbison and “Funny How Time Slips Away” by Billy Walker were written by Nelson, who developed his own brand of country, which includes plenty of jazz and folk touches.

“Blue Star,” one of two co-writes with his longtime producer and collaborator Buddy Cannon, is a twangy gem with some nice pedal steel guitar play.

“Love Just Laughed” finds Nelson ruminating on a life lacking in regret. “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.”

Nelson has a blast with Toby Keith’s “Don’t Let the Old Man In” as he clearly has no worries about the grim reaper. Nelson also touches on unity with a version of Billy Joe Shaver’s “We Are the Cowboys.”

“Just Bummin’ Around” and “We Are the Cowboys” fit in perfectly. To some, it always seemed like Nelson was just bummin’ around, but the Great Depression-era baby has worked hard throughout his life.

Nelson, who started writing songs at age 7, doesn’t care what anyone thinks, which has been consistent throughout his enviable career. As Nelson is closing in on the end of his octogenarian years, he hasn’t changed a bit.

One of the greatest characters in the history of popular music continues to be productive while living in Hawaii. Nelson’s voice isn’t what it once was, but he makes up for it with grit. It’s still a joy to experience whatever the stoned bard creates.

Enjoy Nelson while you can since there is no one like him or his late country outlaw singer-songwriter pals. It wasn’t ever about fame or fortune for Nelson. However, success found Nelson. After a few spins of “First Rose of Spring,” you’ll be inspired to reach back and reacquaint yourself with classic albums such as 1973’s “Shotgun Willie,” 1976’s “Red Headed Stranger” and 1978’s “Stardust.”

The latter is a reminder of how Nelson could care less about following a logical trajectory. “Stardust,” an album filled with covers of pop standards such as “All of Me” and “Georgia on My Mind,” was released at the height of outlaw country.

Perhaps the most outlaw thing for Nelson was to move in a completely different direction. Nelson is still doing just that by writing and recording as he approaches his 90s. There is nobody quite like Nelson, who is an American treasure. Hopefully, Nelson will endure, but he has no worries about passing away.

It’s evident how he feels when he sings his classic “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die.” “Roll me up and smoke me when I die / And if anyone don’t like it, just look ’em in the eye / I didn’t come here, and I ain’t leavin’ / So don’t sit around and cry / Just roll me up and smoke me when I die.”

Perhaps the aforementioned Richards, who claims to have snorted the ashes of his late father, could do the honors. But that’s only if the Rolling Stones legend outlives Nelson, which won’t be easy for the 76-year-old Brit to accomplish.

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