Album Review: The Little Willies, For the Good Times

The Little Willies
For the Good Times

After having first formed in 2003, The Little Willies released their self-titled debut album in 2006, four years after pianist and vocalist Norah Jones had found success with her jazz and pop flavored solo album Come Away With Me. 

Six years later, a second Little Willies album finally comes to light, following in the tradition of the first by featuring covers of country classics.  For the Good Times finds The Little Willies covering classics songs by some of country music’s most revered (and most covered) artists, including nods to Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell, Loretta Lynn, and Dolly Parton, among others.

The heart and soul of the project, however, is The Little Willies themselves.  Much like the band’s previous effort, For the Good Times is unmistakably a group effort.  Norah Jones and Richard Julien share lead vocal duties, while generous instrumental breaks give all five members – rounded out by Jim Campilongo on guitar, Lee Alexander on bass, and Dan Rieser on drums – ample room to shine.

If there is a noteworthy complaint to be leveled against the album, it is that its approach to selecting cover material is mostly by the book, in that it often leans on predictable choices that have been covered endlessly.  In particular, Parton’s “Jolene” is one of the most covered songs by an artist whose catalog is ripe with hidden treasures waiting to be discovered, which is not to say that Jones does not sing it beautifully.  Fortunately, the Willies have a strong knack for re-interpreting cover material in a way that feels respectful and reverent, but not overly so, and not to the point of becoming half-hearted re-creations of the originals.  Thanks to creative, organic arrangements, they repeatedly clear the lofty bar of taking a well-known song, and making it seem new again.

One of the album’s best tracks is the surprisingly good cover of Loretta Lynn’s “Fist City.”  Fact:  Loretta Lynn is a hard one to cover.  Her distinct persona and vocal style are so familiar that many artists have fallen into the trap of misguided mimicry – Just ask Sheryl Crow.  But as it turns out, Jones acquits herself nicely by giving a performance that is true to her own vocal style, but that still conveys the sharp sass that the tell-it-like-it-is lyric calls for – She has never sounded feistier.  Likewise, the band reworks the song into a two-stepping arrangement that serves it well, while still retaining its signature instrumental hook.

Elsewhere, there’s hardly a dull spot to be found on the record.  Jones’ spirited performance of Lefty Frizzell’s “If You’ve Got the Money, I’ve Got the Time” is unshakably joyful, as is Julien’s take on Cash’s “Wide Open Road.”   On a much different note, Jones’ and Julien’s half-singing, half-whispering performance of “Foul Owl On the Prowl” makes for a deliciously haunting mood-breaker.  A slowed-down rendering of Hank Williams’ “Lovesick Blues,” as well as a hushed performance of the Kristofferson-penned Ray Price hit that serves as the title track, demonstrate the band’s wise focus on putting the songs themselves above all else.  No matter which creative direction the band goes in with the songs they cover, their treatments never come across as gaudy or misguided, nor do they place the singer ahead of the song, but they consistently retain the emotional aspects of the originals.

The instrumental “Tommy Rockwood,” written by Campilongo, is a welcome addition, demonstrating that the The Little Willies are just as competent when cutting loose on an original song as when delivering a well-thought-out cover.  Ultimately, it’s the band’s palpable, infectious enthusiasm for these tunes that makes the record tick.  Despite some missed opportunities with regard to song selection, there is still no denying that what’s here is consistently well-executed, such that any lover of traditional country music will find Good Times to be a highly enjoyable listen.

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5 Responses to Album Review: The Little Willies, For the Good Times

  1. Pingback: Country Universe – A Country Music Blog » Album Review: The … — My Ticket Site

  2. Paul W DennisNo Gravatar

    I have their first album and it is excellent – I’m looking forward to picking up this album, as well.

    I disgree that Loretta Lynn is hard to cover. She is hard for disco singers, rock singers, rappers, hip hoppers and metal singers to cover. Roots-based singers (meaning blues, R&B, country and bluegrassers) usually don’t have much problem with her material unless they consciously try to be Loretta clones, in which case they come across as sounding phony

  3. unless they consciously try to be Loretta clones, in which case they come across as sounding phony

    Yes, that’s basically what I was referring to. The reason I said Loretta is hard to cover is because I’ve heard relatively few who were able to adapt Lynn’s material to their own distinct vocal styles as successfully as Jones does here. You’ve probably heard more Loretta covers than I have though.

    Thanks for getting a discussion rolling on this post, by the way ;)

  4. Paul W DennisNo Gravatar

    During the 1960s and 1970s it was common for albums to contain at least two or three covers of other artists’ hits. Since the actual roster of female singers on the major rosters was limited they all covered each other’s hits

    Even talented songwriters such as Dolly Parton did it. On her IN THE GOOD OLD DAYS (WHEN TIMES WERE BAD) album Dolly covered the following songs “It’s My Time”, “Harper Valley P.T.A.”,”Carroll County Accident” and “D-I-V-O-R-C-E”

    I have covers of Loretta songs by virtually every female singer of the era and they all did a pretty good job on them because they were not trying to be Loretta clones – you see more of that by younger singers trying to do Loretta.

    Also remember this – television has been the great leveling force in helping eradicate or smooth out many of the more extreme regional accents in this county – everyone tries to speak like Dan Rather orr Brian Williams. Many of the “girl singers” of the 1960s and 1970s came from the same part of the country as Loretta and her accent was their accent as well, so they might sound like Loretta but it wasn’t because they were consciously trying to do so – it came naturally

  5. I see what you mean. To clarify, I was mainly speaking in the context of younger modern-day artists (such as some that participated in the 2010 tribute album), though I should have been more specific there. I didn’t have the female singers of the 1960s and 1970s in mind when I made that remark, though I was previously aware that it was common for them to cover other artists hits in that era.

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