At the dawn of the '70s, Rick Nelson was in the wilderness. He hadn't placed a single in the Top 40 since 1964 but he didn't disappear, he worked steadily on the outskirts of L.A., creating a hybrid of country and rock not too far removed from the nascent Cosmic American Music the Byrds
were playing at the same time. Nelson didn't do this in the spotlight, so when he debuted his new sound in public it caused some shock and rejection -- a situation he detailed on his 1972 comeback single "Garden Party," a loping country-rocker with the hard-learned moral that "you can't please everyone, so you've got to please yourself." Nelson followed that credo during the 12 years documented on Bear Family's 2010 box set The Last Time Around 1970-1982
-- a seven-disc set that's the last of their three exhaustive boxes covering Nelson's career -- sometimes smoothing the edges down so he could possibly slide onto soft rock radio but never straying from country or rock & roll, even smartly polishing his rockabilly roots for a new wave makeover at the end of the '70s. Nelson might have covered Graham Parker
's "Back to Schooldays," a song that sounded tailor-made for him, but it didn't generate a hit or lend him a second-hand hipness, so he never quite got the credit he was due. Then again, as The Last Time Around
proves, Rick Nelson in the last act of his career was the kind of troubadour who was dependable, not flashy, and that's never the kind of artist who is a prime candidate for a revival. Yet that very dependability is what is so impressive when Nelson's music is heard in retrospect. Apart from a couple of aimless flirtations with disco and polyester soft rock in the late '70s, the music of The Last Time Around
is remarkably consistent, Nelson locking into a nice sun-bleached country-rock groove and never straying. He was a subtle yet strong interpreter, always delivering good versions of Dylan
and funkifying the Rolling Stones
' "Honky Tonk Women," and the inclusion of a live set from 1974 illustrates that his talent was hardly limited to the studio; on-stage, he delivered with the same easy authority. Certainly, some of this music feels distinctly of its time -- there are enough mellow vibes, spacious echoes, and slightly out-of-phase guitars to suggest this is all colored in muted paisleys -- yet it is so sturdy, so deeply rooted and expertly executed, that it endures, perhaps even sounding better with the passage of time than it did when it was made. At the very least, this exceptional box set proves that, many years after his commercial heyday, Rick Nelson still delivered fresh, entertaining music, which is something few of his rock & roll peers could claim.