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Willie Nelson, “Last Man Standing” (Legacy). Let’s pause for a moment to recognize what this is: At 85, the age he turns on Sunday, Willie Nelson has released an album of entirely new original material. This is almost certainly unprecedented in the history of recorded music.
Willie’s good friend Ray Price recorded his final album at age 87, but he didn’t write any of the songs. (Willie wrote one of them, “It Always Will Be.”) The closest comparison may be Pete Seeger’s “At 89,” which won him a traditional folk Grammy in 2009 — but that was a mix of originals, traditional tunes and spoken-word passages. All 11 tracks on “Last Man Standing” were written by Nelson and his longtime producer Buddy Cannon. It’s remarkable enough that Nelson has continued to tour and record regularly well into his 80s, but his recent increased songwriting activity, spurred largely by Cannon’s input and support, is something rarely if ever witnessed before.
That doesn’t automatically make “Last Man Standing” one of Nelson’s best records, of course. Compared to last year’s remarkable “God’s Problem Child,” which we contended was his best record in two decades, this one feels good but not great. The thing to remember about Nelson: Though his most lasting legacy will be his songs, from “Night Life” and “Crazy” to “On the Road Again” and “Still Is Still Moving,” his life’s work has depended equally on interpretation — “Georgia on My Mind,” “Whiskey River,” “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain.” What made “God’s Problem Child” so good was not only the award-winning Nelson/Cannon number “Still Not Dead,” but also his readings of songs such as Donnie Fritts’ “Old Timer” and Gary Nicholson’s “He Won’t Ever Be Gone” that were perfect for his persona.
“Last Man Standing” has plenty of high points, starting with the title track, which leads off the record and sets the tone. Like much of what Nelson has written with Cannon, this one’s playful even as it takes on sobering truths. The loss of close compadres such as Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard leaves Nelson not wanting to be the last man standing, until he ponders the alternative and reconsiders: “But wait a minute, maybe I do.” And where would he go, anyway? “Heaven is closed and Hell’s overcrowded,” he declares on “Heaven Is Closed,” before deciding, “I think I’ll just stay where I am.” He stares down fate with a smile again on “Bad Breath,” which he reminds “is better than no breath at all.”
There’s classic Willie wisdom here too. “Don’t Tell Noah” (“about the flood”) humorously advises folks against stating the obvious to those who already know, inevitably pointing the arrow home: “Don’t tell me that I’ve lost my mind, ’cause I’ve been crazy all the time.” In “She Made My Day,” he cautions against the consequences — “but it ruined my life” — yet he’s clearly playing it for a laugh, not sympathy. Best of all is “Something You Get Over,” a beautiful ballad that’s arguably the record’s best musical moment. Willie turns serious here, deeply lamenting a lost love yet persevering: “It’s not something you get over, but it’s something you get through.”
What’s missing is the outside material so perfectly presented on “God’s Problem Child.” I’d trade another gem like Willie’s rendition of Sonny Throckmorton’s “Butterfly” for Nelson/Cannon originals such as “Ready to Roar” and I Ain’t Got Nothin’,” which are good for dancing but by-the-numbers, or “Me and You,” which is no match for “Me and Paul.”
And then you stop and think, again: This guy just released an entire album of new original songs midway through his ninth decade on the planet. We should all be so fortunate to experience not just extended longevity, but continued creativity. In the long run, Willie may not end up being the last man standing — but on second thought, maybe he will.