A fine second album of country covers from the Norah Jones-fronted collective.
Mike Diver 2012
Two albums in eight years might not sound like a particularly great level of productivity – but The Little Willies are no ordinary band. A collective ostensibly fronted by Norah Jones, albeit with ample vocal support from Arden-born folk singer Richard Julian, this outfit came together in 2003 to jam out some much-loved country cuts at New York’s Living Room venue. A debut, self-titled album emerged in 2006, featuring tracks penned by the likes of Kris Kristofferson (Best of All Possible Worlds), Townes Van Zandt (No Place to Fall) and, perhaps inevitably given their chosen moniker, Willie Nelson (I Gotta Get Drunk). For the Good Times follows the formula of its predecessor, offering up a selection of the band’s favourite numbers as well as a jaunty original, the near-instrumental Tommy Rockwood, written by gifted guitarist Jim Campilongo.
There’s plenty of care taken with these covers, the players evidently keen to not tarnish their own memories of the songs in question. Lovesick Blues, the Cliff Friend and Irving Mills show tune that Hank Williams made his own in 1949 when it topped the stateside country chart, is beautifully delivered by Jones and Julian, whose vocals intertwine atop a sparse acoustic backdrop, percussion minimal but just powerful enough to drive the piece forwards. Johnny Cash’s Wide Open Road is given a rather sunnier disposition than the 1950s original, more suited to a swinging barroom than any backwater barn dance. And Jones shines on Loretta Lynn’s 1968 chart-topper Fist City, making it clear that she’s as comfortable with this style as the softer-edged output she’s collected so many Grammy Awards with.
While not all of these selections are familiar to the fair-weather country listener, the closer certainly will be. Dolly Parton’s Jolene was a major international hit in 1973, and appears at number 217 on Rolling Stone’s top 500 songs of all time list. With Jones on vocals and piano, and little else imposing itself prominently onto the mix, the version here is a striking take that swells like a persistent lump in the throat until it’s guided to a close by Campilongo’s gently sighing, delicately twanged guitar work. It’s a downbeat end to what is, predominantly, a wonderfully rousing collection; but it’s an end that, one hopes, points the way to a third instalment of The Little Willies’ refined reinterpretations.