Willie doesn’t want to be the last man standing, he declares on the title track of this new album, made up of eleven original co-writes with producer Buddy Cannon.
After a moment’s consideration, he adds: “On second thought, maybe I do.”
The song is a wry concession to an overshadowing truth that accompanies Willie Nelson and his music every step at this stage of his life: He’s an 85-year-old man who is one of America’s most preternaturally active and creative artists, and he keeps on going. He still performs something like one hundred shows per year, and records and releases an average of two albums per year. Nelson’s perseverance is not only extraordinary but heartening.
Perhaps no other American artist unifies so many disparate listeners across a troubled land in this time. Willie Nelson doesn’t preach or chide; he doesn’t even claim the wisdom of his years as an exemplar for us all. He does something rather different that digs deeper: He demonstrates that every new season, every new night, offers a way forward with fresh promises…maybe joyous, maybe hurtful…until the end. “Life goes on and on,” he sings in ‘Last Man Standing’s most hard-won line, “And when it’s gone it lives in someone new.”
That’s both transcendent and down-to-earth truth. We live until we die – you, me, Willie Nelson, everybody – and will go through loving and harsh realities that don’t hesitate. That path is inexorable. Last Man Standing is full of both lively beauty and hard truth, but it also offers grace notes.
With its understanding of life as something that is both evanescent and reverberant, Last Man Standing picks up in the territory where last year’s God’s Problem Child – Nelson’s 72nd studio album across fifty-six years of recording (and one of his finest) – left off: The closing song, ‘He Won’t Ever Be Gone,’ was a tribute to a fallen friend, Merle Haggard. This time the line of commemorations has grown. In the opening track, ‘Last Man Standing,’ Nelson sings:
“It’s getting hard to watch my pals check out/It cuts like a wore out knife/One thing I’ve learned about running the road/Is forever don’t apply to life/Waylon and Ray and Merle and ol’ Norro/Lived just as fast as me/I’ve still got a lot of good friends left/And I wonder who the next will be.”
Despite that rumination, the song doesn’t feel like a requiem: The music works in an entirely different mood and direction, kicking off like a stampede of race horses, headed for a rendezvous at the liveliest honky-tonk in town. The singer says he doesn’t want to be the last survivor among his allies, then thinks twice. The truth is, he’s in no hurry; he’s well occupied with the here and now: “Go on in front if you’re in such a hurry,” he offers, “Like Heaven ain’t waitin’ for you.”
But only a few moments into ‘Last Man Standing,’ you realize you’re tapping your foot along to the beat of ephemerality, to a black humor that’s nevertheless dead serious about the dead.
…read the rest of the story in Issue 89.