Still Standing

“It’s gettin’ hard to watch my pals check out
Cuts like a wore out knife
One thing I learned about runnin’ the road
Is forever don’t apply to life
Waylon and Ray and Merle and old Norro
Lived just as fast as me
I still got a lotta good friends left
And I wonder who the next will be
I don’t wanna be the last man standin’
Or, wait a minute, maybe I do…”

By Willie Nelson and Buddy Cannon

Last Man Standing isn’t just one of Willie Nelson’s latest album projects, it speaks about a guy who’s still around long after his friends have passed away. He can’t help but wonder after all the partying they’ve all done, why he’s here to tell the tale.
Nelson was one of those renegade artists back in the ’70s who didn’t exactly fit Nashville’s idea of a country star, but then neither did Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, or Merle Haggard. They couldn’t deny Nelson was a hell of a songwriter, but that nasally twang didn’t hit the right note.
But somehow these slightly irreverent gentlemen gravitated toward each other, joined forces and blew the doors off the country genre both individually and collectively, taking the music in a whole different direction. Their country fans latched on to this new “outlaw” movement and followed them for years, all the way to those last tour stops, and since then, they have yet to waver.
Nelson isn’t one for wallowing in his loss. Of course, he savors those friendships like fine wine, probably toasting or toking on a joint to all of their memories every chance he gets, hoping they’ll meet up again on “the other side.”
The whole album, released in April of this year, contains one gem after another, all penned by Nelson and Cannon, and debuted at No. 3 on Billboard’s Top Country Album chart.
Another song about love and loss, “Something You Get Through” might indicate a pattern here on the 67th album, but the song is crafted so well and recorded with the barest of instrumentation to let the lyrics breathe and speak to the soul. The real message is about the experience and what a person does with it rather than dwelling on that person who is no longer here.
Talk about a metaphor for Nelson’s life.
He doesn’t really let too many things get to him, but then at 85, why would he?
Nelson had a health scare a couple of years ago, undergoing a lung operation but things went successfully and he hit the road again. He has always been about beating the odds — both in his career and his life.
Known as a great songwriter by early Nashville and Memphis music centers, writing “Crazy” for Patsy Cline and “Hello Walls” for Faron Young, he decided to sing his own songs and was almost laughed out of Dodge. But a move to Austin, Texas changed all of it. He pushed ahead, and although it took quite a while, he broke through as one of country music’s most iconic singers.
Nelson’s different approach to his music is one of his constants. For example, everyone in the music industry said an album had to have 12 songs of about three minutes tops in length, each having a different topic or theme.
Well, Nelson went out and recorded an album that told one long story about a strange man filled with sorrow of a lost love, utilizing ballads that wound the theme around his haunting acoustic guitar work. Songs would fade away, meld into each other, appear again later on the album… the sum creating a national sensation that introduced Nelson to a bigger audience than most artists would ever enjoy. The album was the heralded Red Headed Stranger (1975) and set the stage for more second-guessing by the experts on Nelson.
After Red Headed Stranger there were those who thought he should clean up his act to help his career roll along. What did he do? He let his hair grow even longer and took to wearing in-your-face braids and a scraggly beard.
He plowed along, and with friend Jennings in tow, fanned the whole “outlaw thang,” warning every mama not to let their “babies grow up to be cowboys.” This pairing gave a shot in the arm for both Nelson and Jennings and gained them respect outside the country music genre.
It looked like the honky tonk road was the one that Willie Nelson was going to travel now. He owned it and could sing songs about whiskey, women and worry until the truck broke down. But in true Nelson fashion he turned left when everyone else was going right.
On the heels of the release of the Wanted: The Outlaws album, he released a compilation of classic songs from the American songbook in his Stardust album, singing “Blue Skies” and “Stardust.” But it wasn’t that far-fetched an idea.
The wily Willie knew what he was doing. His natural jazz influenced vocal stylings, with his syncopated and half-beat lag, worked wonders on these songs. The album became the most successful of his career to date, reaching No. 1 on the country charts (no one knew exactly where to put this album so they went with Nelson’s identity as a country singer), earning multi-platinum sales awards and a Grammy.
Many established singers, and friends of Nelson, were now fully on board with him. Kris Kristofferson and Johnny Cash, joined him for the Highwaymen album; the duets started flowing in great number; movie roles came his way (The Electric Horseman, Honeysuckle Rose, Stagecoach and others); and then the IRS came calling.
It has always been said that “you can’t fight City Hall.” Nelson had a $16 million bill from the IRS, and his take on it was, “I think it’s funny that a cotton picker from Texas owes the government $16 million dollars.” But that cotton picker could also sing, so he sold off a lot of his assets, held concerts “for the government” and settled his debt within a couple of years. He fought “City Hall” and came away just fine, thank you very much.
As the years accumulated, Nelson became more than just a country singer/western actor. He became something of the “wise man on the mountain.”
To that end, a few years ago, he came out with a book called The Tao of Willie in which he relates his journey of bumps and scrapes, forks in the road, detours, disastrous twists and hairpin turns — from swimming against the currents of a whiskey river to the Zen-like figure of a man who’s comfortable in his own skin.
Another publishing venture, Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die – Musings from the Road, was published by HarperCollins in May 2012.
In September this year, Nelson recorded his tribute album to Frank Sinatra, entitled My Way.
A few years ago he recorded a tribute to Ray Price, called For the Good Times.
He’s also been letting his sons Lukas and Micah take the reins in the recording studio, and the three of them spent time singing and picking together. The result, Willie’s Stash, Vol. 2: Willie Nelson and the Boys. (Lukas Nelson and Shooter Jennings provided their vocals for “Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow up to be Cowboys,” as the theme song for the Netflix series “The Ranch”).
Other projects include Nelson presenting classic country his way on Willie’s Roadhouse, on SiriusXM.
Nelson makes regular appearances in Laughlin, sometimes with members of his family in tow. But no matter who tags along, Nelson’s stripped down simple family and band configurations create a more intimate, more enjoyable way to hear every lyric and every note, the way nature intended. But then Nelson might just toss in a surprise or two, just to keep his audiences guessing.
With Nelson always keeping at least one iron in the fire, how could he ever be satisfied enough to call it quits?
His response: “All I do is play music and golf — which one do you want me to give up?”


The E Center at the Edgewater

Friday, Oct. 12 (8 p.m.)

See “Showtimes” for ticket info