There’s something remarkably genuine about country’s old school, even though its artists (Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, Willie Nelson, Loretta Lynn, et al) are so famous, they’re known on a first-name basis. These classic songwriters wrote songs that felt like they were happening spontaneously in someone’s kitchen or living room.
That spontaneous, genuine spirit is what brought The Little Willies together in 2003. Four friends — Lee Alexander on bass, Jim Campilongo on guitar, Norah Jones on piano and vocals, and Richard Julian on guitar and vocals — were looking for an excuse to make music together, so they booked a gig at The Living Room in New York City. Buzzing from the joy of that night, the group decided to pursue a recorded collaboration and, three years later, released its debut.
It’s been seven years since that first release and, finally, a follow-up is here. It’s hardly surprising that the disc is full of old-school country: For the Good Times (out Jan. 10) was titled after a Kris Kristofferson song where, in this case, Jones sings, “Don’t look so sad, I know it’s over / But life goes on and this old world will keep turning.” It’s a brokenhearted country song enveloped in the kind of raw, determined honesty for which the genre is so beloved.
In the spirit of Kristofferson’s ode to a broken heart, The Little Willies’ members perform a dozen covers on For The Good Times, pulled — contrary to the album title’s implication — from some of the saddest, loneliest corners of the American songbook. An obvious highlight is their cover of the Willie Nelson classic “Permanently Lonely,” hardly a barrel of laughs when you consider words like, “I’ll be all right in a little while / You’ll be permanently lonely.” Then there’s Dolly Parton’s “Jolene,” played here with sparse, distant instrumentation and thus built almost entirely around Jones’ vocals. Loretta Lynn’s less nuanced “Fist City,” meanwhile, threatens to “grab you by the hair of the head and lift you off of the ground.”
At first consideration, these classics seem to occupy separate poles lyrically, but the sentiment is essentially the same. Filtered through The Little Willies’ calm instrumentation and soulful vocals, they add up to a storyline that’s new, emotional and, above all, genuine.