"I love playing country music," says Norah Jones. "More than any other genre, it makes me feel at home."
Over the past 10 years, The Little Willies, a group of friends and like-minded souls—Lee Alexander (bass), Jim Campilongo (guitar), Norah Jones (piano, vocals), Richard Julian (guitar, vocals), and Dan Rieser (drums)—have periodically gathered to make music for fun, playing their favorite country tunes and conjuring that down-home spirit.
With their second album, For the Good Times, The Little Willies take on songs by such masters as Loretta Lynn, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, and Dolly Parton. The results demonstrate the joy they take, and commitment they make, to a project that was first born for purely practical reasons.
In 2003, The Little Willies line-up solidified as an excuse for the five friends to spend a night playing music together at the Living Room on New York’s Lower East Side. The show proved to be too much fun for both the musicians and audience for it to remain a one-off. Over the next couple years, The Little Willies continued to play at the Living Room whenever all five members were in town.
Despite hailing from the far corners of the country—California, Massachusetts, Texas, Delaware—the Willies all grew up listening to a certain breed of classic American music. Though they all had various projects of their own, with various sounds and styles, they relished the opportunity to perform both familiar country classics and lesser-known gems and, eventually, to add some originals based in that same tradition.
In 2006, The Little Willies released their self-titled debut, which offered tunes from the revved-up western swing of “Roly Poly” to the cutting wit of Kris Kristofferson’s “Best Of All Possible Worlds” to Townes Van Zandt’s poignant “No Place To Fall.” People magazine praised the album's “lovingly rendered covers.”
The Willies all drifted back into their regular careers, but always assumed they would keep the band going. Jones says that work on For The Good Times actually began a full three years ago but the album remained unfinished. "It’s hard when everybody isn’t in town and we're itching to play,” she says. “But then in March, Jim sent an email, like 'OK, people, I miss you, let’s just play.'"
Material for the new album was taken from the Willies' live repertoire, and by passing around ideas drawn from disparate sources. The selections include more surprising choices, like the trucker classic "Diesel Smoke, Dangerous Curves" and "Foul Owl on the Prowl," from the soundtrack to In the Heat of the Night. Julian says that this batch of songs was actually more thought out than the first record. "Those songs were things we had grown up with, listening to our moms play these records," he says. "A song like 'Permanently Lonely' is something I came to as an adult, and 'Foul Owl' was something Norah’s mother suggested—though our version is pretty far away from the original."
Alongside the more obscure songs, though, For the Good Times also includes some of the best-known songs in the history of country music, like Parton's "Jolene" and the title track, written by Kristofferson and made famous by such singers as Ray Price and Al Green. "We try to pick things more off the beaten path," says Julian, "but we find ourselves hitting a few of those big ones, too. Something like 'Lovesick Blues' is just an old barroom tune, so it seemed like a natural fit to jazz it up a bit, give it more of a parlor feel."
Jones maintains that she's not intimidated by tackling these standards, despite the iconic renditions that are so familiar to all. "We've been playing them since the beginning, and people love it," she says. "I sure love to sing 'Jolene,' and people enjoy it when we do it. It’s OK that it’s familiar—this is an album of covers and it’s nice to have a few that people really know and love. It doesn’t bother me as long as it’s natural."
In the studio, The Little Willies remain a unique enterprise, the product of true musical masters with feet firmly planted in several different worlds. "The recordings kind of are the rehearsals," says Campilongo. "Norah will do a song a different way every time. In 2006, when we first recorded, I was kind of taken aback, but I’ve grown to appreciate her jazz approach. It's actually gotten easier because it really is a band now.”
"You've got to have reverence and respect for the music,” Campilongo adds, “but that doesn’t keep us from trying to give it our own spin. We don’t want to be a retro band—we want to be able to be us."
Julian reiterates the sense that having five strong players, with very different perspectives, is the Willies' great strength, and that while some of the songs may be familiar, the approach certainly is not. "We all like this music for different reasons," he says. "We like the tunes and what the stories say, but we’re not looking to deliver some kind of authentic country style. It all kind of gets invented on the spot."
Jones points out that For the Good Times represents the culmination of a set of musical and personal relationships that go back a long time. "I’ve known Richard for fourteen years, Jim was our roommate when Lee and I lived downtown, I’ve played with Dan since 2000," she says. "So the dynamics are funny, but they're always great. We never argue or fight. It's kinda like a little family—and to keep that family functional is probably why we don’t do it full-time.
"I always want to keep playing with this band," she says. "And I don’t ever want to have it not be fun and just feel like work."