Full disclosure: I have a pretty serious crush on Norah Jones, so I’m going to do my best to be unbiased here.
The Little Willies are an excuse for some great musicians to get together and play some standards and covers. That sounds like an oversimplification, but it’s really not so limiting. The five “Willies” blend originality with tribute on each song, crafting a good album of well-known tunes. They’re playing as a cover band, a fact they know and accept. They aren’t here to break musical barriers, to line their pockets with gold records; they’re here For the Good Times.
Norah Jones and Richard Julien share vocal responsibilities. While both have certain songs on which they really shine alone (Jones on “Jolene,” Julien on “Diesel Smoke, Dangerous Curves”), it’s when they come together for that long-forgotten twangy harmonizing — a staple of classic country music — that you see their true face. Everything is better when you work together, right? It’s no different here. “Lovesick Blues” gives them an opportunity to harmonize over a little bit of country yodel, and they do it to near perfection.
What might steal the show on the album is Jim Campilongo’s guitar. He plays hot-rod country licks with such ease it might make even accomplished guitar players lay it down and walk away. “Tommy Rockwood,” written by Campilongo, is an instrumental in the vein of Danny Gatton. More than standing in the spotlight, he’s happy to lay under vocals as well, like he does on “Fist City.”
When you’re recording cover songs, song choice is important. Thankfully there’s a solid track list here too, including some obscure tunes. Maybe only the country faithful will know tunes like “Remember Me” and “I Worship You,” but if you were part of the Johnny Cash revival a few years back, you’ve probably heard “Wide Open Road,” and anyone that grew up south of Canada should have heard Lefty Frizell’s “If You’ve Got the Money I’ve Got the Time.”
This album isn’t going to blow your mind, but it’s not meant to. It’s an album of great musicians paying tribute to their love of classic country music. It’s refreshing to hear an album reviving traditional country music — and Norah Jones singing it just makes it that much better.