Photo by Pamela Springsteen
No matter what’s happening around him, you can bet safe money that Willie Nelson still can’t wait to get on the road again. From the confines of his Luck Ranch on the outskirts of Austin, Texas, he’s trying to make the most of the conditions that forced him to cancel the remaining dates on his spring tour and delayed the release of his latest album, First Rose of Spring. But after speaking with him for just a few minutes, it’s pretty clear that nothing, not even a coronavirus pandemic, will keep the ever-resilient country music hero from staying focused on the future.
“I mean, for now we just have to work with what we get,” he says matter-of-factly in his amiable, zen-like drawl. “We’re up in the hill country, and everybody seems to be pretty healthy, so we’re just trying to keep it that way. But we have a few things we’re planning online, and then I’ve been going in the studio every day since I’ve been here. I have a lot of stuff happening with Micah, my son—he’s recording some. We just need to have something to do, because you can’t do nothing else, really.”
By the end of April, Nelson and his family production team had hosted four of his Luck Presents events from the ranch, including the annual Luck Reunion, which normally draws 4,000 fortunate fans to Nelson’s property for a day-long music festival. It was quickly reconfigured as a livestream called “‘Til Further Notice” and aired on its originally scheduled date of March 19. In the closing highlight, Nelson sat in his living room with his two multi-talented sons, Lukas and Micah, to play a freewheeling acoustic rendition of his longtime live staple “Whiskey River.” And a few weeks later, the three convened again to perform “Hands on the Wheel,” from Nelson’s classic 1975 breakthrough Red Headed Stranger, for his long-running Farm Aid benefit.
Under the circumstances, it’s a treat to get a glimpse of the Nelson family at home, but it’s also a painful reminder of what we’re missing. Willie Nelson in concert is more than just a performer. He’s an experience unto himself: a walking, talking wellspring of country, soul, blues, and jazz lore, and a profoundly gifted interpreter of music who can take a crowd of 70,000 people on an emotional journey that lingers for the rest of their lives.
There’s a bittersweetness, a sweeping sense of nostalgia, in that notion, which Nelson captures perfectly on First Rose of Spring. Produced by longtime friend and confidant Buddy Cannon, who has helped craft Nelson’s sound—and co-written a growing number of songs—on some 15 recordings going back to 2008’s Moment of Forever, the album is as much a statement of love, hope, reflection, and, yes, house-rocking and hell-raising, as it is a solemn and intimate portrait of a man fondly looking back over a life that’s been lived to the fullest.
Of course, the title song pretty much says it all. “First Rose of Spring” is first and foremost a sweet love song, and finds Nelson singing with unusual tenderness, clarity, and strength, while the brief solo he takes on Trigger—his instantly recognizable road-beaten Martin N-20 nylon-stringed acoustic guitar, which he acquired new back in 1969—crackles with the sound of Texas blues and flamenco-flavored Mexican folk, all imbued with Nelson’s confident touch and quirky, fleet-fingered licks.
“The guitar players on these albums are incredible, and that’s before I put Trigger on there, so I hope I didn’t screw it up!”
“I just love Willie’s guitar playing,” Cannon says from his home just outside of Nashville. “Every time he plays Trigger, he plays something different. I mean, he even surprises himself. Sometimes he’ll play something and he’ll laugh, you know? Everything is improv with him. He doesn’t sit and think, ‘Hey, how about this lick? Let me work on this and get it right.’ He never plays the same thing. You can play the same song, same track, 10 times, and everywhere he places a note is different every time—and to me, it’s all correct. It’s never wrong.”
Nelson might wave off the praise, but it’s clear that he trusts Cannon implicitly in the studio. “Buddy and I just work really well together,” he says. “He’s in Nashville, and I’m usually somewhere else, so he’ll cut the tracks in Nashville, using the musicians he likes to work with, and then when things are ready, normally he’ll come down here to my studio. Then I’ll just go in and do my parts. It’s really an easy way to record.”
It’s also testament to Cannon’s talents that he can make the album sound like it was tracked with everyone in the room together [see sidebar, “Trigger Happy:Buddy Cannon on Recording with Willie”]. “Blue Star” and “Love Just Laughed,” in particular, both new songs that Nelson co-wrote with Cannon, stand out for the way Trigger meshes in the mix with the harmonica licks of longtime band member Mickey Raphael, as well as the buttery steel guitar played by Mike Johnson, and the lush Fender Rhodes (on “Blue Star”) by keyboardist Catherine Marx.
Nelson plays through a vintage Baldwin C1 Custom amp, which accents the lushness of the Martin while also giving it a unique bite that responds to his touch, and can cut through any wall of sound, depending on how hard he plays.
TIDBIT: Willie Nelson’s 70th solo studio album, First Rose of Spring, was produced by Nelson’s longtime collaborator, Buddy Cannon. Most of Nelson’s vocal and guitar takes were tracked at his Pedernales Studio in Texas, with Steve Chadie engineering. Additional sessions were at Nashville’s Blackbird Studio with Cannon’s trusted engineer, Tony Castle.
(Back in ’69, Trigger was outfitted with the Prismatone pickup from a Baldwin 800C acoustic-electric guitar, which Nelson had been playing for a year or two, until one night, according to the legend, a drunken fan accidentally crushed it underfoot after a gig in a San Antonio suburb.) And, as the years have shown, he does play hard. Since the mid ’70s, a distinctive gash has opened up in the guitar’s spruce top that, to this day, requires periodic repairs by Austin-based luthier and guitar guru Mark Erlewine.
For all the ballads on First Rose, Nelson still went for what he says felt right, from the campfire-like mood of Chris Stapleton’s beautiful “Our Song” to the honky-tonk groove of “I’m the Only Hell My Mama Ever Raised,” made famous in 1977 by none other than Johnny Paycheck. “Me and Paycheck were good buddies,” Nelson says, “and I loved what he did on that record. But yeah, I just picked what was available and did pretty much what I wanted to do, you know? I think that’s the way it ought to be.”
Nowhere else does that intention come through more forcefully than on the album’s closer, “Yesterday When I Was Young,” made famous by the late Roy Clark back in 1969. Nelson seems literally to feel the song in his bones, while his picking of the main melody and plucking of the underlying chords conjures visions of Django Reinhardt (one of his childhood heroes) laying back on a classic ballad like “September Song”—complete with a string section to heighten the sanctified mood.
Of course, Nelson is fully conscious of the song’s implications, since it’s such a moving and heartfelt way to close the album. “I thought so, too, and I’m glad you agree,” he says. “I remember hearing Roy Clark doing it a hundred years ago. He really turned me on to that song, and I’ve loved it ever since.”
He pauses to consider the memory. Having just turned 87, and having lost so many close friends in recent years—including his longtime drummer and best friend Paul English, who passed away in February—Nelson can be forgiven for sounding a bit sentimental. The thing is, a sense of vulnerability is part of what makes his music so accessible. From his country standards “Crazy” and “Funny How Time Slips Away” to his latter-day hits “Always on My Mind” and “On the Road Again,” a palpable warmth, openness, and humanity runs through everything he’s ever recorded.
Nelson also took naturally to the ethos of the “outlaw” country sound that he’s credited with helping to invent. After all, his penchant for cannabis is well documented, and although he gave up smoking late last year, his weed brand Willie’s Reserve, launched in 2015, is currently in, well, high demand. But he’d also point out that his buddies Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, Billy Joe Shaver, David Allan Coe, and so many more were just as integral to the building of the mystique. The thing they have in common: They grabbed life by the throat and never let go.
Nelson picks up that thread and runs with it. “You know, Buddy and I also wrote some stuff for a new album that we’ve started,” he reveals. “One song is called ‘Live Every Day’—that’s the title. It goes, ‘Treat everyone like you want to be treated, and see how that changes your life. Yesterday’s dead, tomorrow is blind, and the future is way out of sight. So just live every day like it was your last one, and one day you’ll be right.’” He pauses again, to let the words sink in.
“It’s not bad,” he says finally.
Not bad, indeed. Read on for the rest of Premier Guitar’s candid chat with the one and only Willie Nelson.