On Last Man Standing, Willie Nelson proves once again – as if he needed to, at age 85, with 72 studio albums and 25 #1 singles – that he is one of the greatest artists in the history of country music. On Last Man Standing, Willie’s voice clearly sings out lyrics that cover an emotional range that other artists can only aspire to, conveying humor, compassion, and wisdom won with a long lifetime’s experience.
Producer Buddy Cannon deserves much of the credit for helping Willie make Last Man Standing such a high quality record. The contributions of the supporting cast cannot be underestimated: superstar Alison Krauss contributes fiddle and background vocals; Jim “Moose” Brown plays the Hammond B3, piano, and Wurlitzer; Fred Eltringham provides drums and percussion; Kevin Grantt accompanies Willie on the upright bass; guitar is played by Mike Johnson (steel), James Mitchell (electric); Bobby Terry (acoustic, electric, and steel), and Tommy White (steel); Lonnie Wilson adds additional drums; producer Buddy Cannon and John Wesley Ryles add background vocals; and Mickey Raphael plays harmonica, as he has on Willie’s albums since 1975.
In its description of “progressive country,” a style that it uses to label Last Man Standing, AllMusic states that many of that movement’s pivotal figures – including Willie Nelson – are not especially good singers. Willie may not have the most perfectly beautiful voice, but he knows how to use the voice he has perfectly. When Willie sings, every word is perfectly clear and comprehensible. I appreciate this quality as a listener, but as reviewer, I savor it.
Willie’s writing on Last Man Standing is fresh, vibrant, and impactful. There’s something to say about every song on this tightly produced record, but I will restrain myself and limit my comments to three tracks. The lead-off title track finds the auteur mulling over his advanced age, considering the loss of friends. He considers that he might not want to be the last man standing, to see everyone he loves and cares for leave him, a hard-hitting sentiment for any of us who have watched someone we care about grow to very old age. In a deft move, Willie turns the song around, deciding that he wants to embrace life as long as he can, that he wants to be the “last man standing.” The strength of Willie’s spirit and character means as much to this song as the lyrics. Despite the burden of loss and an aged body, Willies moves forward with incredible good humor and positive energy to make new music and perform in defiance of his years.
Willie’s sense of humor is displayed nowhere as much as on “Bad Breath.” Making light of the problems that come with old age, he declares “Bad breath is better than no breath at all.” The joke works because it’s simple and honest, and we can all understand it.
I dare anyone not to get misty-eyed at “Something You Get Through.” Willie sings, “It’s not somethin’ you get over / But it’s somethin’ you get through.” Everyone who hears this song will see themselves in it, will find themselves wrestling with emotions. With all his decades of experience, Willie has encapsulated a simple, powerful truth: we don’t get “over” loss, but we move forward and continue with our lives. Willie sees the light in the dark: “And when it’s gone / It lives in someone new.”
Willie Nelson’s Last Man Standing is nothing less than a compelling masterpiece by one of the great American musicians. CD, vinyl, streaming, however you can get it, it’s out now, and you owe it to yourself to listen to it as soon as you can.