I know that I’m not an expert in music, nor have I ever claimed to be, but I’ve always felt that I have a pretty decent knowledge of different genres and bands within them. But there are a few genres that I know very little about. One of them is country.
Now I am not anti-country music by any means, even if I find country-pop (aka mainstream country music) to be awful at times. I actually enjoy most of what I’ve heard, particularly if it’s traditional country music, and I have a ton of respect for the genre, in general. The problem is, that while I was exposed to some country music growing up, it was never a big part of my life. That’s why it’s a good thing there are bands like The Little Willies to make sure that I get some quality country music in my life.
I honestly forget how I found out about the band, but it happened in 2006 when they released their first album, The Little Willies. The thing that got my attention was that the band was fronted by Norah Jones, and even though I was not a huge fan of hers, the idea of her fronting a country band was interesting. I picked up the album and absolutely loved what I heard. Of course, I knew that this was likely going to be a one-off album, so I didn’t really put much stock into any follow-ups. Luckily, they decided to record another record, even though it took six years to do so.
The group’s latest album, entitled For the Good Times, seems to pickup right where their eponymous debut left off. The quintet, made up of Jones (piano/vox), Richard Julian (guitar/vox), Jim Campilongo (guitar), Lee Alexander (bass), and Dan Reiser (drums), has put together a collection of 12 songs that are easy for any lover of music to enjoy. And even though this album is mainly made up of covers (11 out of 12), it doesn’t take away from the execution of the group.
The band is, by all accounts, a group of elite musicians. Forget the fact that Norah Jones is in the group for a second. If you listen to the group’s recordings, you’ll notice that the musical execution on every single track is impeccable. And I’m quite convinced that the songs were recorded live (meaning that the musicians played at the same time while recording in the studio), because if you check out any video of them on YouTube.com they sound exactly like the album. Now when a band sounds as good live as they do on the album, you know you’re dealing with some phenomenal music. So as a whole, this group is top notch.
Now let’s reinstall Norah Jones into the equation. It’s well known and agreed that the woman can sing and play music, specifically jazz (which is what she known for), so it’s not a far-fetched idea that she can sing country music at a high level. But she doesn’t sing country music at a high level.
She sings it at the HIGHEST level.
Now let’s remember that I am not a country music connoisseur by any means, but Jones’ voice seems like it was made to sing these tunes, even if they aren’t hers. Anyone who has heard her solo material knows that there is a smokiness (and sexiness) to her voice, but a country twang seems to emanate from it as she sings each Little Willies song, which isn’t that surprising since she grew up in Texas, and the mixture of those two qualities make her voice absolutely perfect on each song. It’s simply fantastic.
Of course she has a counterpart, Richard Julian, on most songs that only seems to enhance how her voice sounds. Julian, in his own right, has a fantastic voice that can both carry a song or blend beautifully with Jones’. However, let’s not kid ourselves, Jones is the star here (at least vocally) whether she’d be willing to admit or not (I have no clue what the case is).
However, the guitar work of Jim Campilongo cannot be forgotten. His solos are tasteful, yet brilliant, and each has that stereotypical clean twang that can be heard on many a country tune. Of course it helps that he uses a Fender Telecaster. But the fact remains that on every tune he either adds a wonderful solo, musical special effects, or both, enhancing each tune and making it authentically country.
Now, as I stated above, For the Good Times is almost completely made up of covers, with the one exception being the instrumental, “Tommy Rockwood,” written by Campilongo. But like the group’s first album, the cover songs are not big time country hits, but instead are simply outstanding tunes written by some very well known and respected artists that the band seems to really love to perform (at least this is what I’m assuming about the songs).
The one exception would be the closing track, Dolly Parton’s megahit “Jolene,” which the band totally makes their own. Instead of the upbeat nature of the original, the band creates a much more haunting atmosphere, allowing Jones to emit the passion and eagerness that come from the words Parton originally wrote. The arrangement is dark and beautiful, showing the competency, control, and elite execution of the entire group. It closes the album on a dark, but beautiful note.
Other standouts on the album include Ralph Stanley’s “I Worship You,” the Hank Williams hit “Lovesick Blues” (though it was written by Cliff Friend and Irving Mills), Lorretta Lynn’s “Fist City,” and Johnny Cash’s “Wide Open Road.”
Of course, the entire album is fantastic, with no song standing out for the wrong reasons, and I highly recommend it to anyone who has any affinity for country music, or at least an open mind to the genre. In all honesty, if the album wasn’t listed as a country album, I wouldn’t even think of it as being one, just as an album of great music. And just like its predecessor, The Little Willies (which I also highly recommend), For the Good Times is an album that contains great music that any music lover can enjoy, even if it is country music.
P.S. – I have a major crush on Norah Jones.