The Little Willies: “For the Good Times”
This is just the kind of record that many are likely to write off as a “trifle,” which I just can’t stand. This band was always supposed to be a one-off, a “side project,” a busman’s holiday. They’ve now given us a second album, and it’s loaded with unequivocally great songs, all of them performed very well. What, exactly, is there to complain about?
The Little Willies are not a band you count on for grand statements or for trailblazing. They were convened on the fly, just as an excuse to play classic country music together. The joy is in hearing these songs performed with enthusiasm and warmth. That’s what you count on the Little Willies for, and that’s what they deliver. For the Good Times does not offer anything that strikes me as revelatory, but it does give an opportunity to listen to these songs framed in ways that cause you to give them a second thought. And for what its worth, it’s better than their debut.
If anything, I wish they allowed themselves a bit more anarchy, a bit more impish humor. This is a band, after all, whose name is halfway a reference to the Red-Headed Stranger himself, halfway a dick joke. There is a streak of fun-loving camaraderie that animates their records, and this one leaves room for some creative liberties here and there. By and large, they play it straight. These performances are not quite reverent, but are certainly respectful.
That might be for the best, I suppose. The really interesting thing about this Little Willies album is the way it presents these country songs without much of what I’d call grit or twang. The tendency, sometimes, is to play up the rootsiness of songs like these; how else does one prove their own mettle and country music cred when tackling standards by Loretta and Dolly, Johnny and Lefty? The Little Willies take a different approach. Perhaps because some of them are songwriters in their own right– one of them, Norah Jones, a fairly successful one– they emphasize the craft of these songs more than the feel of them. You have probably heard it said that great country songs are models of technical songwriting acumen, that Hank Williams was basically doing just what the Tin Pan Alley guys were doing. That shines through in these performances. The Willies stretch and bend these songs just enough to show how sturdy and expertly crafted they really are; or, they just play them with heart, proving that they never go out of style.
Pretty much everything here is a weeper; maybe all the great country songs are. The opener, Ralph Stanley’s “I Worship You,” is sung by Jones as a pure truckstop honky-tonk tearjerker. She pulls out all the loneliness and longing. She shortens the line between country and soul to where you can hardly see it. They also do “Fist City” and the original Willie’s “Permanently Lonely,” and both are ravishingly sad and straightforward.
The band members almost convince you, here and there, that they were born to cry, but of course, they also have fun. What is a Little Willies session for, if not relishing the craft and feeling of these songs? They embrace “Diesel Smoke, Dangerous Curves” with a certain sense of mayhem. They really get cooking, with cocktail piano and barbed-wire guitar work, to the point where you can almost imagine the whole thing derailing. There’s also a killer two-part vocal; Jones delivers her two words with such a smoky allure that you immediately realize why she’s been called in as a hook girl on so many hip-hop songs. Meanwhile, Loretta’s “Fist City” bops with a jaunty R&B attitude; it seems as ready for a sock hop as a honky tonk. Jones does it straight, but clearly get the defiance and humor in the lyric.
The album closes with “Jolene.” A friend recently commented that this song is quickly becoming the country/roots equivalent of “Hallelujah,” which is probably true– and if it is, I blame the White Stripes– but the Little Willies’ version is a great one. They let the song breath: The instrumentation is hushed and minimal, with Jones’ voice and her male harmony partners creating the drama all on their own. They reveal what the song is, but leave Dolly’s words and melody to do the heavy lifting, which is really the only sensible way of doing it, is it not? As long as the Little Willies are offering such fine takes on such stellar material, their albums will never be trifles.