This is one of their most beautiful duets, largely because Parton is at her peak as a singer and a songwriter.
She gets Wagoner to up his game in return, and he sounds fantastic singing the first verse. But as was becoming the norm even outside of their duets, she simply outclasses him, taking the melody to new heights as she perfects her signature sound.
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.
A good old-fashioned cheating song, from the days when songs such as this were very much in fashion.
It’s not as interesting or deeply layered as Barbara Mandrell’s “The Midnight Oil”, released the following year. But it’s a more believable pairing than most of the duets they sent to radio in this time period.
It’s doubtful that any record could be universally agreed upon as the greatest country single ever made. But any conversation on that topic would have to include serious consideration of “Coat of Many Colors.”
It’s also doubtful that I can add anything meaningful to the conversation about the song itself. Better writers and historians have already covered it all, so much so that I can’t separate what I’ve read about it from whatever original thoughts I might have.
I will say that whenever I think about the autobiographical events in the song, it makes me sad. But when I actually listen to it, there’s an optimism that shines through. Maybe it’s just the perspective of having seen some success by the time she recorded it.
Or maybe the song taps into her resilient inner child, the one who had the strength to endure such humiliation without knowing what a bright future lay ahead of her.
Despite all the achievements and accolades she’s earned, “Coat of Many Colors” suggests that Parton’s finest moment might have been in that classroom all those years ago.
The title track got most of the love, and deservedly so, but the first single from Parton’s Coat of Many Colors album is a strong effort in its own right. Backed by Appalachian-flavored acoustic instrumentation, Parton mourns her lost love while expressing a desire for nothing more than solitude.
To the bluebird singing a sad song, she says “Spread your blue wings, and I’ll shed my blue tears.” To the bright sunshine, she says “Waste not your warmth on the coldness in here…. Go light your blue sky, and I’ll shed my blue tears.” The song’s brisk tempo belies its sad lyrics as Parton sings with an emotive quiver in her voice.
A minor Top 20 hit, “My Blue Tears” doesn’t stand quite as tall in Parton’s catalog as classics like “Jolene” and “Coat of Many Colors,” but its understated emotional qualities make it a gem worth hearing.
If history had played out the way Woodrow Wilson planned, we’d be celebrating the 92nd Armistice Day today. When first proclaimed a national holiday, Wilson declared the following:
To us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nations.
If the Great War had been the last war, we wouldn’t be celebrating what is now known as Veterans Day. We also wouldn’t have an incredible legacy of songs about soldiers in the annals of country music.
Here are five classics that celebrate those who have served our country and the ones who love them, along with one tale that has a returned soldier that’s not being loved quite enough.
“Dear Uncle Sam” by Loretta Lynn
from the 1966 album I Like ‘Em Country
Lynn was on the cusp of superstardom when she released this top five hit. Penning a letter to Uncle Sam, she pleads for the safe return of her husband. She sings, “I really love my country, but I also love my man.” His return is not to be, as the song closes with a heart-wrenching recitation of the telegram informing her that he won’t be coming home.
“Galveston” by Glen Campbell
from the 1969 album Galveston
Campbell’s finest performance is a homesick ode for the lady and hometown that he left behind. The sweeping strings and stirring vocal evoke the waves of heartache that are crashing up against his heart, much like the waters of Galveston Bay crash along the shores he once walked with her.
“Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town” by Kenny Rogers and The First Edition
from the 1969 album Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town
Mel Tillis penned this massive hit for Rogers and his band, originally recorded by country artist Johnny Darrell, who took it into the top ten in 1967. The narrator lays in bed, paralyzed from his stint in “that crazy Asian war.” He is helpless as Ruby gives in to desire and heads into town looking for the love he can no longer provide, and he’s left there wishing she’d only wait until he died for her to step out on him.
“Soldier’s Last Letter” by Merle Haggard
from the 1971 album Hag
The spiritual predecessor of Tim McGraw’s “If You’re Reading This.” Mama sits at home, reading a letter from her son overseas. He’s writing from a trenchmouth, hoping his mother won’t scold him for his sloppy handwriting the way she did when he was a kid, tracking mud into the house because he didn’t wipe his feet. He promises to finish the letter when he returns from his next battle, but the letter that arrives back home is incomplete.
“Travelin’ Soldier” by Dixie Chicks
from the 2002 album Home
The modern benchmark for soldier songs. Bruce Robison’s original versions are both worth seeking out, and can be found on his self-titled 1996 album and his 1999 set, Long Way Home from Anywhere. But the acoustic instrumentation that surrounds Natalie Maines’ plaintive delivery makes the Dixie Chicks version the definitive one.
“Welcome Home” by Dolly Parton
from the 2003 album For God and Country
In a brilliant feat of songwriting, Parton weaves together four stories: a soldier returning home, a soldier dying overseas, Christ’s death and resurrection, and Parton’s own hope and longing for eternal salvation.
Gospel recordings were becoming all the rage in the nineties, particularly with female artists.
Sometimes it seemed like they just wanted a big showpiece for the CMA awards. Dolly Parton and Pam Tillis had performed with enormous choirs behind them in 1991 and 1994, respectively. These were, perhaps, the only times in CMA history that the demographics on stage accurately reflected greater metropolitan Nashville.
In 1996, Shania Twain debuted a revamped version of “God Bless the Child” on the show. Originally a short a cappella number that closed her breakthrough album, Twain added several verses that touched on a wide range of social problems that impact children.
Twain’s less than powerhouse vocals work in the performance’s favor. Her restraint keeps the song from becoming overblown. And in turn, what could have been mawkish remains reasonably thought-provoking and pleasant to the ears.
Written by Robert John “Mutt” Lange and Shania Twain