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Review: The Little Willies, For the Good Times

The Little Willies
For the Good Times
[Milking Bull (2012)]

The Little Willies are a collaboration between Nora Jones (piano and Vocals), Richard Julian (Guitar and vocals) Jim Campilongo (Guitar), Lee Alexander on Bass, and Dan Rieser on drums, who all share a common interest in playing classic country tunes. It’s been five years since their last studio session (which produced The Little Willies), but For The Good Times was definitely worth the wait.

Like their first release, the disc is composed mostly of covers of classic country songs from some of their favorite writers. Kris Kristofferson, who’s song “Best Of All Possible Worlds” appeared on the first album, is the source of the classic title song, but the selections range widely, beginning with an electrified version of Ralph Stanley’s bluegrass classic “I Worship You,” and Scott Wiseman’s “Remember Me”; the mood transitions through Richard Julian singing Cal Martin’s “Diesel Smoke, Dangerous Curves,” where Campilongo lays on the some guitar licks that make us feel the like we’re up there with them in the cab of that runaway diesel. You can almost smell the oily smoke and bakelite. They shift gears again with a version of Cliff Friend and Irving Mills’s “Lovesick Blues” that would do Hank proud. Then Nora kicks up a bit of attitude with Loretta Lynn’s “Fist City.”

But the album doesn’t have a narrowly-defined notion of country music. Richard Julian does an R&B-toned version of Willie Nelson’s “Permanently Lonely,” with sweet melancholic harmonies and drunken piano rifts courtesy of Nora Jones. Quincey Jones and co.’s “Foul Owl On the Prowl,” from In the Heat of the Night, follows.

There is also the rollicking Jim Compalongo original, “Tommy Rockwood,”  a medley of almost-but-not-quite-familiar material done in a twangy guitar/honky-tonk piano style reminiscent of instrumentals that were popular before the British invasion changed the rock landscape.

Nora Jones never ceases to amaze with her ability to capture not just the mood of a blues or country song, but to get at the core of something that makes even the most covered of songs seem like something totally fresh. The version of “For The Good Times” on this album is a case in point, as is the duet with Julian on “Lefty Frizzell” and Jim Beck’s “If You’ve Got The Money I’ve Got The Time.” Listening to her perform both Loretta Lynn’s “Fist City” and Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” on this album, it is apparent that she can also evoke the performance styles of the original versions made famous in both cases by the songwriters themselves. She often synthesizes many famous versions of songs into a single performance.

With a just a scant dozen careful selections, the album recreates an image of an America all but gone the way of the family farm. The overall mood is like lazing on the back porch on a summer afternoon, sipping on a cola, and listening to the record player work its way through a stack of favorite 45s.

—H . Stephen Patton (Baltimore, MD)

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