Norah Jones, Richard Julian and company take a side trip into the country   

“It’s like eating a big bowl of my grandma’s macaroni and cheese,” jazz-pop superstar Norah Jones says of her childhood love for country music. “It feels nostalgic.” Today she expresses that fondness in part with the Little Willies, the group she first helped form in 2003 with singer and guitarist Richard Julian, guitarist Jim Campilongo, bassist Lee Alexander and drummer Dan Rieser to perform country tunes at a small New York City venue. The Willies’ new sophomore album, For the Good Times, features affectionate renderings of country classics and obscure nuggets—including songs by Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton,  Kris Kristofferson and Loretta Lynn—as well as one original.


What was country to you as a kid?

JONES: It was huge. These songs go deep for me, in a historical sense. I grew up in Texas and my grandparents lived in Oklahoma, so singing this material reminds me of my childhood.


How did you name the group?

JULIAN: The band was conceived out of a conversation about how Willie Nelson is acknowledged for his singing and personality but less so for his great songwriting. It seemed like a cool idea to cover his original tunes, but every time we got together we ended up playing songs by other people as well. The name stuck, but the concept didn’t.


How do you choose the material?

JONES: We just do songs we love, without any consideration of how well-known they are. For a listener, hearing someone cover a famous song is a different sort of experience. People often ask if it’s daunting to cover the well-known material. The thing is, we don’t think of those songs in that way, so it’s not daunting or weird at all. We think of it more as piecing together a puzzle. We get a bunch of good takes and then figure out what we need to round out the album. Does Richard need a ballad? Do I need an uptempo song? We approach all the material with love and respect. We’re just enjoying ourselves.


Who acts as bandleader?

JULIAN: Each of us offers suggestions, but no one bosses the others around. It’s very democratic without being overly polite. We know one another’s strengths and weaknesses, and we help each other out.


Does response vary in different areas?

JONES: We hadn’t played outside New York until recently. It’s fun playing in the South, but we also know that in the South some of these songs are stapled into people’s brains. We were a bit nervous about playing in Nashville because we weren’t sure how well the performances would go down.

JULIAN: It is different. I remember an instance where we played [Kristofferson’s] “For the Good Times” in Manhattan. A really prominent songwriter who was there asked me whose song that was. He had never heard it. That’s when I realized there was a sharp divide between audiences in the North and South. People in New York ask a lot of questions about the songs, which actually is very cool. I think it’s because the songs tell such great stories.


Will you do more originals?

JONES: That depends on how much time we have together in the future. The biggest surprise about the new album is that it actually happened—a couple of the guys had moved out of town, and we had all gotten busy with other projects. Still, in the end all it took was Jim sending an email, saying, “Hey guys, I miss this band. When are we going to play again?” It took some planning, but everything turned out great.

–Russell Hall

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