Norah Jones’ country leanings are not as well known as her other tunes, but if you asked her, she’d say, “I love playing country music. More than any other genre, it makes me feel at home.” And that’s exactly the feeling you get from The Little Willies and their latest album For the Good Times. Formed in 2003 to play a single gig of country covers at the famed Living Room on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, The Little Willies would not stop making music. Their debut, self-titled album in 2006 was, if not widely distributed, well received, and is one of the most lovingly played album of country covers ever released. Jones’ vocal collaborations on that album with guitarist/vocalist Richard Julian give a feeling of not only regret and desire, but of familiarity and comfort with a good dose of raucous humour.
With For the Good Times, they once again hit it spot on. They’ve taken some of their favorite classic country songs from artists like Loretta Lynn, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Dolly Parton and Johnny Cash, and recreated them with the love you’d expect from the original songwriters themselves. As with the Willies’ debut, this album is terribly drinkable, to the point that you could have it on repeat for hours and not realize it, but still be absolutely content with letting it spin around once more. But it’s certainly not a mass produced country record on par with Anheuser Busch: this is the ultimate of micro brews, crafted with care and appreciable for every last drop.
Take for example “Lovesick Blues”, written by Cliff Friend and Irving Mills it’s one song that helped make Hank Williams famous. It’s been crafted and recrafted over and over by more artists than you can count on your fingers and toes. The Willies’ version matches Jones’ and Julian’s voices for the entirety of the song over a minimalist construction of instruments for support — brushes on the drums and lightly plucked acoustic jazz guitar. It’s as delicate as any version out there, but its significance is heavy on several levels, whether you’re familiar with the tune or not.
The most grabbing track on the disc is the record-closing Jolene, originally by Dolly Parton. Here, The Little Willies have taken a supremely recognizable song and made it their own without stripping it of the soul at its roots. It is slowed down, more eerie, but the urgency of Parton’s original version is still there. Jones sings, “Please don’t take him just because you can” as if she knows Jolene personally, and is fully aware of this woman’s power. Meanwhile, the instrumental portion may as well be the soundtrack to a ghost town showdown, the haunting guitar and piano duet sure to end in blood.
Willie Nelson’s “Permanently Lonely” is sung by Julian almost identically to Nelson’s original, of course minus the famous shudder of the redhead, but the Willies’ version is piano based (played by Jones) as opposed to the guitar of Nelson’s. Jones takes the lead on Kristofferson’s “For the Good Times”, both singing the main vocal part and playing piano — it’s simply captivating. Johnny Cash’s “Wide Open Road” is one of the more lively tunes on the record. Sung by Julian and fueled by Dan Rieser on the drums, it’s also one fantastic moment for guitarist Jim Campilongo to show off his guitar chops as he proves he was made to play this.
It wouldn’t be a country album without some humor, though — and The Little Willies have a great sense for it. The only lyrics to Campilongo’s “Tommy Rockwood” are the same as the song’s title — exclaimed in random spots throughout the songs with different expressions of surprise, disappointment, and glee. And, Loretta Lynn’s “Fist City” as sung by Norah Jones is not without its humorous side. In the song, Jones, like Lynn, seems ultimately peaceful, though her threatening words, “I’m here to tell ya gal to lay off my man, if you don’t wanna go to fist city” quite easily bring a lightheartedness to the otherwise terrifying notion of violent love triangles.
Jones’ voice, as ever before, reaches out and grabs you just like you always wanted it to. There is hardly one moment on the album that you can’t picture her singing it live, as this band was born, with all the same desire and passion. But it’s not only Jones who makes this album special, nor can that honor be given to any one member of The Little Willies. Every note is crafted with care and attention by all five members and it’s evident in each one that, for them, this is what fun sounds like.