is old enough now that many of his friends are gone, which has given him something to consider. “I don’t want to be the last man standing,” Nelson, 85, sings on the title track to Last Man Standing, one of two albums he has released this year. After a beat, he finishes the thought: “Wait a minute, maybe I do.”
If he is the last man standing, he’s making the most of it. Most musicians have long since slowed down by the time they reach Nelson’s age—if they get that far. Nelson, by contrast, has released 13 solo studio albums since 2008, plus a bunch of compilations, collaborations and live releases. They include tribute projects, new recordings of old classics and a collection of duets: pretty standard stuff for an artist of his vintage. Yet Nelson’s late-career output also features three albums of original material, much of which he wrote himself after a decade of working primarily as an interpreter.
Calling it a resurgence isn’t quite right, given the amount of music Nelson has made over the years. He’s been around long enough that Patsy Cline had a hit with his song “Crazy” in 1962. Nelson released his debut LP the same year, the first of 68 solo studio albums so far, including Last Man Standing in April and his most recent, the Frank Sinatra tribute My Way, in September. Still, his latter-day pace more closely resembles a garage-rocker who can’t sit still than an octogenarian with absolutely nothing to prove.
Nelson has for decades been among the most iconic voices in music. After making a name for himself as a songwriter in the early ’60s with tunes including “Crazy,” “Night Life” and “Funny How Time Slips Away,” Nelson spent most of the decade bouncing among Nashville record labels as a performer and chipping away at the charts with middling success. By the early ’70s, following a brief, disillusioned retirement from music, Nelson moved to Austin and helped shape the outlaw country movement on a string of albums that ignored the slick, overly produced Nashville sound then dominating the genre. Shotgun Willie in 1973 owed at least as much to the Band as to Bob Wills, while Nelson’s minimalist 1975 concept album Red Headed Stranger was his first to hit No. 1—but not the last. He’s released nine solo chart-toppers since then. Later came album-length collaborations with Merle Haggard (two No. 1 albums), Waylon Jennings (1978’s Waylon and Willie made it to No. 1) and, in the Highwaymen, Jennings, Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson (whose first album album also reached No. 1). It’s been a long time now since Nelson was an outlaw, but he still does what he wants without regard for expectations.
That accounts for My Way and at least a few more of Nelson’s recent albums, including the collection of standards American Classic in 2009, and Summertime: Willie Nelson Sings Gershwin in 2013. Recording an album of tunes made famous by Sinatra, mining the American songbook and paying tribute to George Gershwin, a songwriter and composer who helped usher in the Jazz Age, might seem incongruous coming from Nelson, but don’t be fooled: a jazz musician’s heart beats within his hippie-cowboy exterior. It’s long been evident in his guitar playing, and you can hear it in his behind-the-beat vocal phrasing on “Fly Me to the Moon” from My Way, “Somebody Loves Me” from the Gershwin album, or “South of the Border,” from yet another album of standards, 2013’s Let’s Face the Music and Dance. For that matter, Nelson was covering Hoagy Carmichael, Duke Ellington and, yes, Gershwin all the way back in 1978 on Stardust—his most commercially successful album, with sales of more than 5 million in the U.S.
Not everything he has released over the past decade has met the high standard he has set for himself. Nelson doesn’t always seem fully engaged on American Classic, and Heroes in 2012 felt disjointed. (Featuring fellow weed aficionado Snoop Dogg on “Roll Me Up” didn’t help, nor did his vocal phrasing on a version of Tom Waits’ “Come On Up to the House,” which was so far behind the beat that it verged on self-caricature). Some of the albums featuring Nelson’s versions of country hits through the years feel extraneous, too, given how many great songs he’s written—a quibble underscored by the strong original material on Band of Brothers in 2014, God’s Problem Child in 2017 and Last Man Standing.
None of them are groundbreaking in the way that, say, Red Headed Stranger was. Yet Nelson demonstrates throughout that he’s still a sharp songwriter with a gift for melody, a way with words and a dry sense of humor that has become a little more pronounced than it used to be. And apart from having lost a bit off the top end of his unmistakable voice, Nelson’s warm, nasal tenor has scarcely changed over the past 45 years—an amazing feat of durability, given the way singers’ voices tend to thicken with age, and how much time he spends surrounded by smoke. Nelson’s contemporary George Jones, for example, barely had any voice left on a concert tour the year before he died, at 81, and even the mighty Johnny Cash was reduced to a haunting croak on American IV: The Man Comes Around, the last album he released before his death in 2003.
As you might expect, Nelson’s recent material includes plenty of meditations on growing older, on songs like “Last Man Standing,” “Heaven Is Closed,” the aching “Old Timer” and, most directly, “Still Not Dead.” “I run up and down the road making music as I go/ They say my pace would kill a normal man,” he sings on the chorus of that one. “But I’ve never been accused of being normal anyway/ And I woke up still not dead again today.” Talk about self-awareness.
There’s probably a stale joke to be made about how Nelson has to keep working to pay his taxes (Nelson settled his debts with the IRS in 1993), but the truth is surely simpler: There’s still a lot of music he wants to make, in a finite amount of time. Even in the last few weeks he’s remained busy: He played at a rally for Beto O’Rourke, the Democratic candidate for Senate in Texas, and released the new song “Vote ’Em Out.”
At the risk of burying Nelson before he’s gone, he really is the last of a breed. He’s a songwriter’s songwriter, the performer who united the hippies and the rednecks and the duet partner who has never sounded like anyone but himself, whether he was singing with Waylon Jennings, Norah Jones, Snoop Dogg or Julio Iglesias. Nelson’s voice is in many ways synonymous with country music, or at least a certain kind of country music. It’s hard to imagine that an artist just starting out could have the longevity, to say nothing of the success, that Nelson has—40 million records sold, a dozen Grammys and the love and respect of his peers—while doing things his own way. In other words, keep those albums coming, Willie.