The passing of time is a central theme on Willie Nelson’s latest album, Last Man Standing; and that is barely
surprising as the wily old country singer-songwriter is now 85 years old. On
the cover he stares warmly at his legendary ‘Trigger’, which looks nearly as
old as he his. As lovers of Nelson’s life and music well know, it certainly has
shared a big part of his rich and often wildly-textured story.
In fact Willie Nelson and Trigger can be seen on the first single video release from the album, also entitled Last Man Standing, together with his fellow guitarists playing a Fender Jazzmaster and a Fender Stratocaster. “It’s getting hard to watch my pals check out - [Nelson is explicitly thinking about friends like Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings and Ray Price here] - it cuts like a wore out knife, one thing I’ve learned about running the road, is ‘forever’ don’t apply to life,” he sings. It sounds grim but with the help of producer Buddy Cannon (who co-wrote all 11 songs) Nelson raises the tempo and gently pokes fun at both the world and himself.
Nelson is not afraid to directly face the moment he is at in his life, but it is done with good humour. After a song that playfully references dementia, for example, he turns to halitosis; explaining that while his breath may be bad enough to "melt the wall", “it's better than no breath at all.”
Me and You is perhaps the most political and probably the darkest song on the album, as he rails against what his country has become, how people treat the world and the betrayal of ‘friends’. But it is possible that Nelson is actually taking aim at himself here; and that interpretation would certainly be in-keeping with his humble and self-effacing style. Nelson shares the wisdom of his years on the emotionally powerful ballad Something You Get Through. Reflecting on various moments of grief over the course of his life, he sings: "It's not something you get over, but it's something you get through".
Slide guitar and Mickey Raphael’s harmonica are evident on Heaven is Closed; but on this track hell is overcrowded as well, "So I think I'll just stay where I am," he wryly croons.
Very Far To Crawl is both the last track on the album and one of the best as it beautifully melds harp, acoustic and electric guitars; “I shouldn’t really be here at all…” he sings, “but I don’t have very far to crawl.”
Last year saw Willie Nelson being forced off stage due to his ill-health; and requiring serious medical equipment to help him get back on it. Things did not augre well. But amazingly on the evidence of this album the wizened old outlaw is much better again; and certainly, happily for his fans, his unique spirit seems to be as strong as ever.