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Outlaw country’s lone wolf

At 85, Willie Nelson, a living legend, has released yet another great album; and something else to go with it

Willie Nelson performing at his annual Fourth of July picnic, 2017. Photo: Getty Images
Willie Nelson performing at his annual Fourth of July picnic, 2017. Photo: Getty Images

Just days before his 85th birthday late this April, Willie Nelson did two things. He released Last Man Standing, his 67th studio album in a career that began more than 60 years ago. And he launched Willie’s Reserve, a strain of cannabis marketed by his company of the same name.

A long-time activist for the legalization of marijuana, Nelson’s cannabis is, for obvious reasons, available only in places in the US where marijuana sales are permitted—for medical or recreational purposes. There is, of course, no such restriction on the latest music release by one of outlaw country music’s greatest legends.

As he has aged, Nelson’s songs have occasionally been tinged with thoughts of death. In 2012, his album, Heroes, had Roll Me Up, a song he co-wrote with Kris Kristofferson and rapper Snoop Dogg, whose lyrics went: “Roll me up and smoke me when I die/ And if anyone don’t like it, just look ’em in the eye/ I didn’t come here, and I ain’t leavin’/ So don’t sit around and cry/ Just roll me up and smoke me when I die." Last year, when rumours were swirling about his health, he released God’s Problem Child, a set of songs that were introspective musings on ageing and failing health. Yet, sharp, tight, and laced with Nelson’s characteristic humour, there was darkness but nary a drop of self-pity or whinge in their lyrics.

Last Man Standing revisits that theme, but in a markedly different way, with what seems like hope and defiance. Like God’s Problem Child, the songs on the new record are co-written with long-time producer and collaborator Buddy Cannon. The two are often known to write songs by exchanging text messages. The showpiece of the album is the title track and opener on which Nelson namechecks Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, Ray Price and Norro Wilson, dear friends who have departed, and with whom he often collaborated. He sings about how he doesn’t want to be the last man standing but then he adds quickly: “On second thoughts, maybe I do." A couple of songs later, he refers to that thought again; other songs on the album also deal with death and ageing.

If that description makes Last Man Standing seem like a dirge, it is anything but. Nelson’s mischievous sense of humour permeates the songs, making them a set of 11 enjoyable, foot-tapping tunes, brimming with optimism and one-liners such as: “But bad breath is better than no breath at all." The remarkable thing is how nimble it sounds.

Age has certainly taken its toll on Nelson’s voice, which, if compared to his earlier discography, sounds hoarser and less versatile, yet he works wonders with what remains. And there’s the still incredibly great-sounding Trigger, his trademark Martin nylon-string acoustic guitar, which is painstakingly tuned to his specs before he plays.

For a musician as prolific as Nelson—whether in the studio or on his itinerant tours—and one who has lived life in his 60s, 70s and 80s in pretty much the same style of his wilder youth, the years can erode creativity, quality and energy when it comes to making new music. Nelson, miraculously, has been able to stave off that decline. Just to gauge the road he has traversed, I spun 1975’s Red Headed Stranger, a brilliant concept album that was minimalistic in its arrangement but whose theme was a story about a fugitive preacher who killed his unfaithful wife and her lover. It was a blockbuster when it came out and was deemed to be multi-platinum (it sold more than two million copies). Then I re-heard Last Man Standing. And I’m happy to report that Nelson’s talent and genius are both intact.

Along with country music stars such as Jennings, Haggard, Kristofferson and Johnny Cash, Nelson was one of the pioneers of outlaw country, a subgenre of American country music that broke out of the formulaic, studio-dictated slickness of the “Nashville sound". The movement, which has earlier roots but gathered momentum in the 1960s, witnessed a band of edgier country musicians induct outside influences such as honky-tonk and rock ‘n’ roll. More importantly, they wrote their own songs and music and took on the authoritative regime of country music’s establishment.

The album cover of ‘Last Man Standing’.

Nelson, in particular, has defied classification, introducing blues, jazz and rock into his style. Over the years, he has collaborated with musicians from varied genres and done interpretations of songs by people ranging from Elvis Presley and Ray Charles to Coldplay’s Chris Martin and Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder.

Known as much for his activism as for his music (besides legalization of pot, he is a strong supporter of family-run farms, bio-diesel, and LGBT+ rights), Nelson has been at the forefront of helping country music cross over from the redneck-favoured genre it once was, towards garnering larger, more diverse audiences. The sheer length of his active career and his unfailing ability to keep performing and recording make him a living legend.

Recorded and released in his mid-80s, Last Man Standing may recall You Want It Darker, Leonard Cohen’s deep and dark last album from 2016. That album was sadly prophetic: Cohen died the month after the album came out. He was 82. Not a happy thought. But then, as Nelson makes clear, he still wants to be the last man standing. I hope he is.

The Lounge List

Five tracks to bookend this week

1. ‘Last Man Standing’ by Willie Nelson from ‘Last Man Standing’

2. ‘Roll Me Up’ by Willie Nelson from ‘Heroes’

3. ‘Bad Breath’ by Willie Nelson from ‘Last Man Standing’

4. ‘Georgia On My Mind’ by Willie Nelson from ‘16 Biggest Hits: Willie Nelson’

5. ‘Time Of The Preacher’ by Willie Nelson from ‘Red Headed Stranger’

First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.

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