Willie Nelson has now outlived most all of his original critics, co-writers, collaborators, and colleagues. Calling him the last man standing doesn’t begin to express the kind of incredible life this man has lived studying under the very founders of country music in his early years, until now symbolizing one of the last living links to the genre’s past, all while arguably being country’s greatest performer ever, or at least its most prolific, and probably its most influential.
At the rate we’re going, Willie Nelson might outlive country music itself, or his death might mark its end. And with an unending drive that many people half his age and with not nearly his list of accomplishments would envy, he just keeps churning out new albums of original songs as if there’s still something to prove, and people to woo. Even if you erased all of the other incalculable accomplishments of Willie Hugh Nelson over 85 years, simply his Ironman drive and endurance is enough to enshrine him as one of the most legendary humans in history, in music or anything else.
In 2017, the specter of what many were concerned could be Willie Nelson’s impending demise hung in the air like an anvil dangling just above country music’s head. Canceled shows, exits off stage in coughing fits, and rumors of Willie constantly having to be on oxygen tanks backstage and other constant click-bait headlines had everyone on pins and needles and fearing the worst.
When he released his 2017 record God’s Problem Child, in some ways it felt like the preamble to an epitaph. The image of Willie in blood red on a black cover was ominous, and it included songs where it was clear Willie was pondering his own life (and death) in ways that were not just about reflection, but about coming to peace.
. . . and then here Willie Nelson is a year later releasing a new record of all original songs written by himself and producer Buddy Cannon to celebrate his 85th birthday, and seeming to be as spry, lucid, and feisty as ever.
Last Man Standing is a spirited, humorous, entertaining, and touching record in moments, with no wear or weariness evident in Willie when he sings a verse, or takes a solo on Trigger. This is a lighthearted record in many respects, where instead of delving into life’s deep questions, Willie takes moments to make keen observations with a sense of amusement and appreciation, even if the subject is his own mortality, which comes up often. The music directed by Buddy Cannon appropriately rises to meet this playful mood.
Willie might hit the high note though when he gets somber and touching in what feels like the centerpiece of the record, “Something You Get Through.” The steel guitar and Mickey Raphael’s harmonized harp part combine with Willie’s signature wisdom to squirrel away yet another song for his legacy that is darn near perfect for capturing a feeling we all go through, and turn to music to help endure.
But Willie Nelson has always been at his best when he intermixes his own material with songs he hand selects from his friends and his hefty knowledge of the American songbook. Red Headed Stranger was mostly cover songs and contributions for example, with Willie using his own words and music to build a cohesive story. By asking Nelson to contribute 11 new tracks, especially since he’s been pushing out new releases so consistently over the last few years, it leaves some of the writing feeling a little thin in portions of Last Man Standing.
It’s appreciated that when you release a record, you need some sort of specific narrative to present to the press and public, especially when you’ve released as many as Willie Nelson has. However, being able to say this is the first record in however many years that Willie wrote himself isn’t as rewarding as a record where you get a few new Willie songs, as well as his take on some interesting classics, or some songs we’ve never heard before from quality songwriters in a more well-rounded work.
Last Man Standing is still a solid effort, and includes some songs that people will remember Willie for in years to come. But if charged with recommending a late career release from Willie, the better bet would be 2017’s God’s Problem Child.
Yet part of the marvel off this man is that he’s still here, still soldering forth, and frankly, still out foxing so many of today’s successful performers and songwriters. With 85 years of wisdom and legacy behind every word he sings and every note he plucks, it all comes across as scintillating magic. What an incredible gift it is that one of the most iconic humans to ever walk the earth chose country music as his pursuit. And after so many iconic voices have passed in recent years, here Willie still is living among us, the true last man standing, sharing music with others with the same passion and dedication he’s been displaying now for seven decades.
1 1/2 Guns Up (7/10)
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