Willie Nelson Is Outlaw Country’s ‘Last Man Standing’

Country icon Willie Nelson has recorded music and toured relentlessly for six decades and is still going strong. In celebration of his eighty-fifth birthday, he just released the appropriately titled “Last Man Standing.” Nelson famously united the hippies and the rednecks ages ago, with his trademark, edgy, and sincere strain of Outlaw Country. With so many of the genre’s heroes having departed, his latest is a welcome expression from an impressively enduring voice, serving to sustain a spirit that has all but disappeared. Nelson has dabbled in such disparate styles as jazz and reggae over the years, but focuses, on his latest release, largely on his signature sound, stripped down and straightforward, drawing from the western lexicon with an informed discrimination and a seasoned prowess. The eleven new songs, co-written by producer Buddy Cannon comprise a timely, reflective set of classic Willie fare.   

At age 85, it’s only natural that Nelson devotes much of his latest record to nostalgic musings and contemplation on the ephemeral nature of life. The title track features the lyrics, “One thing I learned about runnin’ the road / Is forever don’t apply to life / Waylon and Ray and Merle and old Norro / Lived just as fast as me.” Mind you, Nelson released his classic, “On the Road Again,” back in 1980, and has continuously validated its title through the present day. It’s a rare thing to “live fast,” and still live long, and that singular position has inspired the bulk of the new album’s content. Nelson reasons, “I don’t wanna be the last man standin’ / On second thought maybe I do.” In true outlaw country style, Nelson is keeping at it, one record and one show at a time.  

While the new album demonstrates a dogged resilience and perseverance, it also betrays a weary, wayworn spirit, with traces of learned cynicism. In “Me and You,” Nelson reflects, “There’s more of them than us / Just when you think you made a new friend / They throw you under the bus / So it’s just me and you.” Bleak as this may come across, it’s still more optimistic than other moments, for instance in “She Made My Day,” in which “me and you” is reduced to “me and me.” Nelson recalls, “We were gettin’ along just fine, just me and me / We understood each other perfectly / Then I let my guard down and there she was / Well that’s stupid is as stupid does.” As if loss of loved ones isn’t enough, years of betrayal, added to the mix, can truly make one feel like the “Last Man Standing.”   

There are numerous references to an end likely being near, as in “Very Far to Crawl,” in which Nelson sings, “I don’t have very far to go / I don’t have very far to crawl.” Such a situation makes one sort out one’s priorities, which should be reason enough to excuse the rather off-putting “Bad Breath,” featuring the chorus line, “Bad breath is better than no breath at all.” Having justified the here and now, Nelson goes on to speculate about the otherworldly in “Heaven is Closed,” singing, “Heaven is closed and hell’s overcrowded / So I think I think I’ll just stay where I am.” Again, these lyrics reveal a rather disillusioned perspective, in their acknowledgment of hell and dismissal of heaven. Still, Nelson remains positive overall, declaring, in “I’ll Try to Do Better Next Time,” “The Good Book says ‘Love everybody’ / And the Lord knows I really have tried / So I’ll throw a kiss to the ones that I have missed / And I’ll try to do better next time.”  

Along with all the album’s grave subject matter, there is plenty humor thrown in, in little snippets such as, “I gave you a ring and you gave me the finger,from “I Ain’t Got Nothin’.And there are lighthearted expressions of Nelson’s characteristic devil-may-care attitude, as in “Don’t Tell Noah,” when he charges, “Don’t tell me I told you wrong / It goes like this ’cause I wrote the song.”    

Musically, the new record is largely subdued and uncluttered in the raw barebones style that Nelson has claimed for himself. There are sparse ballads of heartbreak, making a convincing case for the old joke that when you play a country song backwards, you get your girl, your house, your job, and your truck back. There is also plenty festive, jubilant sound here, with lighthearted roadhouse bangers, and abounding fiddle revelry. Nelson’s vaguely jazzy stylings and idiosyncratic nasal croon are ever present. Overall, it’s another serving of a classic artist delivering his classic sound.

Last Man Standing” is available April 27 on Apple Music.