Willie Nelson has always been a straight shooter, and he’s always treated others with love and respect. That’s why he was able to bring the rednecks and hippies together in Austin back in the day and why he’s been able to sing with different musicians as contrary to each other as Toby Keith and the Dixie Chicks, Sinead O’Connor and Julio Iglesias, Keith Richards and Dolly Parton. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. As the old joke goes, it’s easier to name someone Nelson has teamed up with than someone he hasn’t.
But it seems Nelson has lost his faith in people these days. Oh sure, he’ll still collaborate musically with others, even if this album does not contain any duets. That’s part of his identity as much as smoking grass and wearing long braids. It must be in his DNA. However, Nelson’s new record reveals how alone he feels these days.
So while Nelson claims he doesn’t want to be the Last Man Standing, he quickly acknowledges that maybe he does. While many of his old peers such as Waylon Jennings, Ray Price and Merle Haggard have moved over to the other side, Nelson is not ready to die. “Maybe we’ll meet on the other side,” he muses on the title track. But then again, maybe not. As he notes on another cut, “Heaven Is Closed” and not only that, “hell is overcrowded” and heaven and hell might turn out to be the same place. He might as well just stay where he is.
It’s not just that his friends are dying that makes him sad and alone. He’s lost his feeling of connection to other people. Despite the upbeat rhythm of “Me and You”, it’s the saddest song on the record. He complains that he doesn’t recognize the country he lives in anymore; that the planet has gone crazy. He has more enemies than friends, and friends will betray you. There is no “you” to talk to anymore—so now he just talks to himself.
Nelson co-wrote all 11 songs on the album with its producer Buddy Cannon. Cannon keeps the sound clean. One can distinguish each of the instruments on every song. Nelson writes in a variety of styles such as Western Swing, country waltz, honky tonk and other traditional Texas genres. He’s joined by top-notch musicians including his regular harmonica accompanist par excellence Mickey Raphael, fiddler Alison Krauss, and keyboardist Jim “Moose” Brown. He and Cannon employ three different drummers and three different steel guitarists, which shows how important these instruments are to the sound of the album. Of course Nelson himself plays his own guitar named Trigger.
Last Man Standing suggests Nelson has no intention of slowing down. The lyrics may express a disillusionment with the world today, but what or where else is there? Nelson admits he doesn’t know so he’ll take pleasure where he can find it. He’s still “Ready to Roar”. He might be the one with “his head up his ass” and have breath bad enough to “melt the wall”, but it’s better than no breath at all. “Life goes on and on” he sings on “Something You Get Through”. Individuals may come and go. However, the earth will keep on spinning with or without us.