The Little Willies Let the ‘Good Times’ Roll on Sophomore CD
The Little Willies may have begun as a fun side gig a decade ago for some friends with a mutual passion for country music’s rich heritage, but their latest album, ‘For the Good Times’ reveals a level of country cred so deep that it would put a lot of today’s country hitmakers to shame by comparison. A perfect example of what happens when sheer artistry and true friendship collide, the Willies combine Norah Jones‘ and Richard Julian’s vocal stylings with Jim Campilongo’s wizardry on guitar, Lee Alexander on bass, and Dan Rieser on drums, and the end result is some mind-bogglingly great, retro-country fun.
Those familiar with Norah’s breathtakingly beautiful voice on her own pop/jazz hits like ‘Don’t Know Why‘ and ‘Come Away With Me,’ (from the 10 million-selling CD of the same name) will be blown away hearing her tackle tunes like the quintessential Dolly hit ‘Jolene,’ the cagey, sexy ‘Foul Owl on the Prowl’ (from the soundtrack to ‘In The Heat of the Night,’) or the achingly poignant Kristofferson classic, ‘For the Good Times’ on the Little Willies’ new CD, out today (Jan. 10). The Boot sat down with the band to get their take on the band’s undeniable chemistry, how they deal with stage nerves, New York’s ambivalence to country music, and their desire to jam with their legendary namesake.
You all come from various musical backgrounds, so tell us a little about how you ended up playing country music for fun?
Jim Campilongo: We’ve been friends for a long time, and we were looking for an excuse to play. Even before that, we all really loved country music and had played it, and it just seemed like a really fun idea. I couldn’t have thought of a better bunch of people to play it with. Aside from the fact we’re friends, it’s just a really competent and excellent band. So we started playing for the fun of it. I’ve been in bands where it was a struggle sometimes to make it sound good, even if the players were good, so I think we have some good chemistry.
Lee Alexander: I was talking to Norah about that last night at dinner saying how easy it is with this. It’s nice to just show up at the gate, plug in and play.
Norah Jones: We’ve all been in bands where it’s not like that, even our own bands. But we’ve been playing together so long and I feel like these songs are so good, it’s like they just kind of play themselves.
Richard Julian: This was the first band I was in that I thought was working great. I had a lot of bands doing my own stuff, and the first night I got onstage with the Willies in the Living Room doing that tune it was like, “Wow, this really feels like the way it’s supposed to be!” And it really taught me things about running my own band.
What do you remember about those first sessions, more than a decade ago, playing together at the Living Room on New York’s Lower East Side?
Norah: I remember it was just fun. It felt like we were meant for each other.
Richard: The funny thing for me is most of the songs, at least the ones I sang on the first record, were songs that I had been singing for my family for a long time. We would have these little jam sessions where my mom grew up in North Carolina with my grandfather, so I was really into that music. But when I found out that Norah was into it, it was kind of a revelation. Because in New York no one would talk about Kris Kristofferson … everyone would talk about jazz, or about other things … It just seemed like the most obvious thing in the world when we started doing those tunes, because I’ve been singing them since I was 10! But I’d never conceive of singing them out in the club in New York; I would never think, “I’m gonna put ‘Tennessee Stud‘ in my set.” But suddenly we were doing these songs, and it just fell together so easily.
Norah, you’ve said that you feel like country is your musical home. Why is that?
I guess because I grew up with it, but I didn’t sing country music until I was 22. It’s not like I grew up singing it, but I grew up hearing it, and ever since we started listening to it more than 10 years ago and playing it, it just always feels a little bit more like home to me than any other music.
Do you all feel like a big part of this band is the spontaneity of it? And does having a side project help fuel your creativity for your other projects?
Lee: It’s the only thing I’m doing right now besides racing cars, so I love it! It really gets my creative juices flowing! [laughs]
Jim: It’s helping that racecar driving a lot!
Richard: It informs the improvisational aspect … listening to other people helps inform other aspects of your life.
Norah: I play so much more piano in this band — it’s really good for me. I can be a lazy musician … because I don’t really practice a lot when I’m not working. So it’s like I’m getting a workout.
There are some great country classics on this album. How did you narrow down the material?
Norah: Half of the tunes we’ve been playing since we first started playing together, like ‘Jolene,’ ‘Lovesick Blues,’ ‘Remember Me‘ and ‘For the Good Times’ — we’ve been playing those songs since the beginning and people always love them. Sometimes they’re the favorite songs of the whole set. But for some reason, we just didn’t ever get a great recording of them last time, or didn’t have room on the first record for everything. We actually recorded ‘For the Good Times’ on the first CD, but it ended up as a bonus track.
Richard: ‘Diesel Smoke‘ was something I learned because Jim made me a tape of some cool guitar-centric country, so that wasn’t a song I had grown up with singing as opposed to the other stuff on the first record. Or ‘Permanently Lonely,’ for example, is a song I knew growing up but I had never learned it, so that was kind of new to me.
You played the Opry at the Ryman last month. There’s something magical about playing that Ryman stage, isn’t there? Even though you’ve played there several times before.
Norah: I could see these guys were a little nervous, and then I wasn’t nervous because I was back behind the piano, which is always great as far as singing. But then I stood up for ‘Lovesick Blues’ and realized we’re doing ‘Lovesick Blues’ at the Grand Ole Opry on the Ryman stage, and I was like, “Oh s—! What are we doing!” [laughs] But it felt good, it was amazing!
Lee: I only got nervous at soundcheck when I looked over and saw Little Jimmy Dickens! But then after we talked to him, it was fine.
Richard: He was hilarious! He’s 91, and he looks great! And his timing with the patter was just hilarious — the kind of jokes only a 91-year-old guy wearing that suit could deliver, and it be funny. It was perfect, really fun!
You cover some of country’s elite on this album: Dolly, Johnny Cash, Willie, Kristofferson. Dolly has been quoted as saying she loves your version of ‘Jolene.’ Have you had any other feedback from any of the other artists?
Norah: I got a sweet text from Willie! It said ‘Permanently Lonely’ was great. He’s so sweet! The first time we met Willie was in San Francisco when I sang with him, but the second time I met him was on the Ryman stage. I was nervous for sure. He’s a darling person, and he’s always been so sweet to me, like my dad or my uncle or my wise, older brother. Musically, I relate to Willie and I feel like this whole thing relates to Willie in the way that yeah, he’s a great country musician, but he’s not just that. He’s just a great musician, he plays everything and he just is Willie when he does a song.
Jim: In the spirit of Willie, we’re playing all these country songs and yeah, we’re a country band pretty much, but we’re not trying to just stay in a box necessarily.
Norah: Some of the songs we do now it kind of goes into that swing sort of place anyway, like ‘Permanently Lonely.’ Willie just writes so many jazz chords, they’re more complex than a lot of those old standards. We were joking about being a Willie Nelson cover band, but I still like having country be our hard rule. We branch out on our own into other areas naturally.
You all give the title track, ‘For the Good Times,’ such a special treatment.
Norah: Thanks! That’s one of those songs we play live that people always tend to love.
Richard: That’s one of the great songs in any genre.
Norah: When I first started singing it 10 years ago, I didn’t really know quite what it was about … it’s one of those songs as you get older you kind of live and understand.
Norah, do you enjoy singing those kind of feisty songs like ‘Jolene’ and ‘Fist City‘?
I do enjoy singing them. I enjoy singing ‘Fist City’ a lot, and I joke that ‘Jolene’ and ‘Fist City’ are two different sides of the same coin — it’s like ‘Fist City’ is Loretta‘s ‘Jolene’ and ‘Jolene’ is Dolly’s version of ‘Fist City’ — different approaches to a situation. I’m a big Loretta fan. But I’ve never met her. We’ll have to send her a CD.
Watch the Little Willies Perform ‘Jolene’
What do you all enjoy doing when you come to Nashville to play?
Lee: I always try to hit Prince’s fried chicken.
Richard: I had a girlfriend here for awhile, so I camped here — another lost weekend for me. [laughs] I love going to Katy K’s to see what stuff is there.
Norah: I have family in Shelbyville, so I always see them when I come, and I like going dancing. I love like playing at the Ryman and then going across the alley and hearing music. It’s so much fun. It’s a testament to these songs, they’re playing a lot of the same songs we’re playing at the bars down on Broadway. I remember we played here last summer with my band at the Ryman, and we went across the street and saw Brazilbilly at Robert’s Western World. We just danced and danced, and I knew every song he was playing, and it was just the most fun thing in the world!
Do you all think New Yorkers will ever fully embrace country?
Norah: Our friends all love every type of music. So it’s kind of hard for us to gauge the general feel.
Richard: There’s a lot of eclectic musicians that we know in New York, and most of the people that we hang with listen to all kinds of music.
Jim: Regional qualities in music to them are really appreciated, it’s not alienating.
Norah: Brooklyn is really so country, actually. [laughs]
Richard: There’s a quote from somebody, it might be Willie I think, that says “all music is country music really, it just depends on what country you’re from.”
If you had to pick just one, what would you say is the most important country song of all time?
Richard: I’ve always loved ‘Streets of Baltimore,’ and Norah will start pushing her glasses up on her face like I’m a nerd, but I think that song is amazing because it has 16 lines and every fourth line ends with “the Streets of Baltimore,” so you have to rhyme everything with that. He gets the people from Tennessee all the way to Baltimore and all the way back, and everything happens in these 16 lines. It’s massive, the story, and it’s so fast and so streamlined.
Is there anybody in contemporary country right now that you’d like to collaborate with on something?
Richard: It’d be fun for Willie to show up at any time!
Norah: Willie offered to sing on this. He said, “Save me something on the record,” but it didn’t happen this time for whatever reason. But we have to do it. It’d be so fun to have him sit in with us!
Do you have any plans yet to make a third CD?
Norah: We don’t have any plans, we just kind of roll with it. Past tonight, that is. So unless we get into a huge fight or something, I think we’ll try to keep on playing.