Song Review: Willie Nelson, “Last Man Standing”

You can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but when they can still do the old tricks this well, you don’t have to.

Willie Nelson needs no introduction at this point in his career, which covers nearly the entire history of the country genre. Although he’s known more for his recreational drug habits than his music these days, he remains incredibly active in the business, with Wikipedia listing a mind-blowing twelve single releases in the previous three years alone.  His latest effort is “Last Man Standing,” the title track from his recently-announced album, and while I’m not as high on this track as I was on Glen Campbell’s take on death last year, it’s still a fun, catchy track that shows that the Red Headed Stranger still has some game left.

Pop- and rock-tinged are a dime a dozen in country music, but jazz-flavored tracks like this one are a rare occurrence (Danielle Bradbery’s “Sway” is the only notable one from last year). The melody is carried primarily by a pair of electric guitars ripped straight from the Marty Stuart show, with some heavy assistance from a rare bluesy harmonica (an instrument that’s become even more rare than the fiddle!). Nelson’s iconic sidearm offers some runs to fill in the cracks (he also throws down a decent solo as well), an organ and piano provide some background atmosphere, and the whole thing is backed by an upright bass and a saucy drum set. The result is a fun, bright, uptempo mix with the most groove I’ve heard in a really long time, and while it’s not a great fit for the writing (death isn’t exactly a happy topic), there’s so much soul in the sound that the listener doesn’t really care.

I wasn’t expecting much from the vocals going into this one, as listening to late-career Willie Nelson is usually an exercise in frustration: His voice is a far cry from his peak, and his sense of timing is completely nonexistent. To my surprise, however, Nelson is mercifully on time and on point here, and his voice stretches just enough to cover the song’s range without a major disaster. (Producer Buddy Cannon deserves a ton of credit for getting some decent takes for this track.) Furthermore, although Nelson might be in the Greg-Maddux-junkball-pitcher phase of his career, he still brings a ton of charisma and earnestness to bear, so much so that he takes a song that reflects on mortality and talks about watching friends die and turns it into a positive, almost uplifting experience for the listener. It’s a testament to Nelson’s unmatched presence and personality, because this isn’t something most contemporary artists could pull off. I guess there’s a reason he’s lasted so long in the business, huh? 😉

The lyrics here aren’t exactly groundbreaking, but it’s an interesting angle on a rarely-discussed topic, mainly because only an artist with a legacy like Nelson’s could discuss it credibly. The narrator feigns indecisiveness over the idea of being the “last man standing,” but his tongue is planted firmly in his cheek, as he knows that he’ll get what’s coming to him eventually and figures he might as well squeeze some more time out of life before it happens. There are a few nuggets of wit buried here (“Go on in front if you’re in such a hurry/Like heaven ain’t waitin’ for you”), and while it’s a short song whose only verse lacks a decent punch line, it does a nice job straddling the live between seriousness and levity. (It’s also the rare track that boasts a singer with enough gravitas to get away with dropping names like Merle Haggard and Ray Charles.)In the end, the writing is fungible enough that Nelson and Cannon can take the song in whatever direction they want without the words getting in the way.

At its core, “Last Man Standing” is a enjoyable, well-executed song that doesn’t let a downer like death to ruin its fun.Nelson delivers the best performance I’ve heard from him in years, and the production backs him with a quality sound that really stands out from the crowd. Nelson may be the one remaining thread that links country music’s history with its future, but he isn’t finished writing that history just yet.

Rating: 8/10. It’s definitely worth your time.