Album cover

“First Rose of Spring’

A tip of the Stetson to Charlie Daniels.

Area residents who were around at the time no doubt recall how Daniels helped the city of McAlester celebrate its 1999 Centennial, when he performed a free concert at the Southeast Expo Center, courtesy of the Walmart Supercenter.

Fans lined up as Daniels cooked up a stew of his hits, such as “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” “The South’s Going to Do It Again” and “Drinkin’ My Baby Goodbye,” along with other hits, deep album cuts and what were at the time, new songs.

We lost Daniels on Monday July 6 in Nashville, Tennessee after he suffered a stroke. Memorial services were set for Friday, July 10, in Murfreesboro., Tennessee, with Oklahoma singer Vince Gill joining Travis Tritt, Trace Atkins and Gretchen Wilson in performances to honor Daniels’ life.

The loss of Daniels brings to mind that yet another of the singers and musicians who rose to prominence in the 1960s and ‘70s is gone. It’s another reminder to enjoy these great artists while we still can.

That’s only one of the reason’s why it’s a delight to hear Willie Nelson in such fine form on yet another entry in what has become a remarkable late-period series of works, even by Willie’s own high standards.

Willie’s record company originally planned to release “First Rose of Spring” in April to coincide with his birthday, but instead pushed the release date to July because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

April’s loss is July’s gain.

One of the best tracks on Willie’s atmospheric new album has a tie to the Sooner State, since it was written by Oklahoma’s own Toby Keith.

Keith has related how he became inspired to write the song while playing in a golf tournament with famed actor and director Clint Eastwood. He told how Eastwood was his partner for the tournament, and they spent an entire day in 2018 pretty much riding around together in a golf cart.

Keith recalled how at one point, Eastwood told him his birthday was coming up the following week, and he was turning 88. When Keith asked Eastwood what he would be doing during the upcoming week to mark the milestone, Eastwood said he planned to begin filming a new movie.

Impressed, Keith asked Eastwood what keeps him going — and Eastwood told him, “I just get up every morning and go out. And I don’t let the old man in.”

Keith related how the phrase stuck with him, inspiring him to write a song with that title and theme and send it to Eastwood — and Eastwood liked it so much, he included it in his movie, “The Mule,” to play over the closing credits.

Keith recorded his own fine version of the song — and now, “Don’t Let the Old Man In” is a standout track on Willie’s new album.

While Keith’s version is touching in its own right, Willie inserts his own brand of pathos into the song, as only he can. Willie brings a world-weariness — and determination — to it with his own inimitable style, especially on the chorus.

“Many moons I have lived, my body’s weathered and worn,” Willie sings. “Ask yourself how old you would be, if you didn’t know the day you were born.”

Try to love on your wife and stay close to your friends, Willie sings. “Toast each sundown with wine, don’t let the old man in.”

Willie’s take on the song is downright inspiring — one of a number of standouts on “The First Rose of Spring.” It’s produced by Willie’s songwriting partner, Buddy Cannon, and the two have once again produced a winning hand.

Opening the album with the title track, Willie begins the ballad with the kind of haunting, plaintive vocal he delivers so well. With a melody somewhat reminiscent of a song he recorded in 1978 titled “Till I Gain Control Again,” he aims straight for the heart.

“The first time that he saw her, he knew everything had changed,” Willie said “Overnight love started blooming, like the first rose of spring.”

It’s a wonderfully mystique track, with Willie vocals cushioned by Mike Johnson’s steel guitar and the harmonica of Willie’s longtime musical partner-in-arms, Mickey Raphael. In approximately 3 minutes and 40 seconds, he takes the listener through a lifetime.

Willie and Cannon’s collaboration “Blue Star” follows, a song about a couple’s plans when they leave this earth.

Willie picks up the tempo with the rollicking “Just Bummin’ Around” and his take on “I’m the Only Hell My Mama Ever Raised.”

Other standout tracks include Billy Joe Shavers’ “We Are the Cowboys” and another tune called “Stealing Home” — not a baseball song.

Once in awhile, a singer imbues a song with so much spirit it seems to become his own. That what Willie does when he sings “Yesterday When I Was Young” — the Charles Aznavour song that previously was a hit for Roy Clark. It’s Willie’s song now.

Once again, Willie’s melodic playing on his weathered Martin guitar he’s named Trigger is featured on nearly every track. Willie’s playing is often compared to the great gypsy jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt — but really, Willie’s in a class of his own. Django was faster, but Willie’s more soulful.

His last two albums have won Grammys. “My Way,” Willie’s tribute to Frank Sinatra, won the 2018 Grammy for Best Traditional Pop Vocal. And the title track from his 2019 album, “Ride Me Back Home,” garnered a Grammy for Best Solo Country Performance.

With “First Rose of Spring” filled with gems, Willie has produced an album that can sit proudly alongside those two.

Only one thing would have made it even better: More Trigger!

Contact James Beaty at jbeaty@mcalesternews.com.

Contact James Beaty at jbeaty@mcalesternews.com.

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