The Little Willies’ first album was released almost six years ago as a side project for velvety voiced jazz-pop chanteuse Norah Jones, then at the peak of her commercial success, whose reputation led, and continues to lead, the marketing of the group. That record allowed Jones to stray from the template of her solo work and pay tribute to the country music she also loved, along with some likeminded friends. It was never just a Jones project, with lead vocals shared with Richard Julian, whose voice is pleasant but unremarkable. Now a second volume has appeared, featuring an interesting mixture of the well worn and less familiar material.
The outstanding track is their exciting and varied reworking of Ralph Stanley’s ‘I Worship You’, with alternate high lonesome and rapid-fire sections, and mixture of solos from both Jones and Julian and close harmonies. Also exceptionally good is the delicately regretful ballad ‘Remember Me’ (a fairly obscure song originally recorded by 1930s husband-and-wife duo Lulu Belle and Scotty, better known for their classic ‘Have I Told You Lately That I Love You’, which like ‘Remember Me’ was written by Scotty (Wiseman)). Some more famous songs are also reworked successfully, with a sensuous interpretation of ‘For The Good Times’ working well, while ‘Jolene’ is effectively brooding.
The Little Willies sometimes come across as a jazz band playing country songs, with interesting, inventive re-imaginings of wellworn material. Examples include their languid, slowed down version of ‘Lovesick Blues’, which is very different from the original, but quite effective at conveying the “lovesickness” of the lyric. A playful approach to Lefty Frizzell’s ‘If You’ve Got The Money I’ve Got The Time’, in contrast, speeds it up, and is very entertaining. However, I did not enjoy the jazzy arrangement of the trucking song ‘Diesel, Smoke, Dangerous Curves’.
‘Fist City’ is enjoyable enough but Norah does not convince me that she would (or could) beat up a romantic rival in the way Loretta does, so her threats ring hollow. Julian’s best moments come on Willie Nelson’s ‘Permanently Lonely’ and ‘Wide Open Road’, a lesser-known but good Johnny Cash song; neither, however, is as good as his highly entertaining cover of ‘Tennessee Stud’ on the group’s first album.
The rather odd ‘Foul Owl On The Prowl’ (not a country song but a Quincy Jones composition which was on the soundtrack of the movie In The Heat Of The Night) is a bit dull and not to my personal taste. The mostly-instrumental ‘Tommy Rockwood’ allows the band members to stretch out.
Overall, this is an interesting record which is not mainstream country, but is worthwhile music in its own right, and a worthy tribute to the genre.