Little Willies – Satisfying their country Jones
When I show up at the EMI offices for an appointment with the Little Willies, the security guy in the lobby frowns and says, “The Little Willies?” Yeah, I say. He checks his list for my name. “Wait,” he says, “aren’t you here for Norah Jones?” Well, yeah, I say, that’s her band. He looks incredulous. “They’re called the Little Willies?” Yeah, I say again, it’s her and her friends. They play country songs. He is now regarding me with something like concern. But he fills out my visitor ID tag and sends me upstairs.
The confusion is understandable, I guess. Norah Jones, after all, is a Big Star, especially here in the EMI building. She has sold upwards of 13 million CDs in the U.S. alone for EMI’s Blue Note label. She may be (as I soon discover) the most nonchalant, easygoing Big Star you’ll ever meet, but still, she’s not just somebody who plays piano and sings country songs in a band with a name like the Little Willies. Except that, yes, she is. Along with her boyfriend, bassist Lee Alexander, and three longtime friends from New York’s collegial folk-jazz-singer-songwriter scene, Jones is part of a loose-limbed, free-swinging quintet that has just released a high-spirited album made up mostly of classic country tunes.
The other Willies are, alphabetically: Jim Campilongo, a guitarist who leads a New York trio that ranges across rock, jazz and blues; Richard Julian, a singer-songwriter with a growing buzz (Randy Newman called him “one of the best songwriters and record makers I’ve heard in a very long time”) and a new album of his own; and drummer Dan Rieser, a former member of Marcy Playground who has played with a number of other New York rock and jazz outfits.
They are friends with several years of overlapping social and professional connections (at one point, three of them lived in the same apartment). And as the band gathers around a conference table in the Blue Note office — minus Rieser, who is busy with another of his projects — the conversation is marked by the kind of casual crosstalk, in-jokes and affectionate ribbing you’d expect of close confidants.
In brief: Alexander met Campilongo in San Francisco in the mid-’90s, when they were both living there. Jones met Julian while she was at college in Texas and he drove down to visit with a group of New York musicians. She then met Alexander after moving to New York. Jones and Alexander took some trips to the Bay Area where they played a few gigs with Campilongo. When Campilongo moved to New York himself in 2002, he stayed with Jones and Alexander for a while.
“He was our roommate,” Jones says. “We were on the road all the time at that point, so we needed somebody to stay there.”
Julian met Campilongo through Jones and Alexander. And Rieser was in an early iteration of Jones’ band (just as he is in the current iteration of Campilongo’s). All five are part of a broader but still seemingly close-knit scene that revolves around the Living Room, a club on the Lower East Side. It is the kind of musical community where people sit in on each other’s sessions, record each other’s songs, and turn each other on to their favorite old records — which is how the Little Willies got started.
Campilongo traces it to a few shows he played with Jones and Alexander in Oakland, with pedal steel guitarist Bobby Black. “We knew enough to play at least a set or two,” he says. “We found out that we loved country music.”
The three of them started trading country mixtapes, looking for songs they could play together. So by the time Campilongo came to New York, the idea of a country cover band was already half-formed. They recruited Rieser, and then after one gig Julian joined to share vocals with Jones.
“We were just booking fun bar gigs and just trying to enjoy playing with each other,” Jones says. “Because at that point we didn’t get an opportunity to play as much, because we were on the road a lot.”
“And they’re all band leaders,” Alexander says, gesturing at Jones, Julian and Campilongo. “I think it was kind of a way for them to have fun and not be the band leader.”
“Definitely,” Julian agrees, nodding. “That’s the funnest part about it, really — just feeling like you don’t have to be completely on or in front the whole time.”
Alexander takes credit, somewhat sheepishly, for the band’s name. He had idly suggested that it would be funny to have a Willie Nelson cover band called the Little Willies. And even after the band decided not to limit itself to the Nelson songbook, the moniker stuck.
Jones says both Nelson and Kris Kristofferson laughed when she told them the name. Dolly Parton calls them the Silly Willies (which Jones renders, in a passable Smoky Mountain drawl, as “Seely Weelies” — “You’ve gotta hear her say it,” she says).
But the diminutive double-entendre has drawn more than just chuckles. Jones says Keith Richards snorted and told her, “You couldn’t get me in a band called that.” Turning to her bandmates, she says, “I never thought about it, but you guys are good men for sticking with that name.”
“I never really think of it that way, to be honest,” Campilongo says.
“I do,” Julian sighs, to collective laughter.
The Willies remained an occasional one-off venture until last summer, when coinciding schedules allowed for two month-long residencies at the Living Room. “That’s when we decided to make a record,” Alexander says. “We thought, let’s not waste all the time we’ve spent.”
They recorded the album in about three days at a small home studio Alexander had just built in the Manhattan apartment he and Jones share. The songs are mostly live takes, Jones says, with occasional overdubs. Thirteen tracks made the final cut, with nine covers and four originals. Jones and Julian alternate lead and harmony vocals, although in some cases it took a while to work out which was which.
“One of the great things about us singing together is that both of us are real followers,” Julian says. “I like to follow and I like to blend, to just get the right thing in there.”
As an example, Jones says, “We do ‘Lovesick Blues’ as a duet the whole way through. I’m singing the harmony part. And I remember the first few times we did it, we were both trying to follow each other and nobody was really taking the horns. So it just kind of laid back further and further and we were both following each other, and I finally just said, ‘Look, I’m gonna follow you. Somebody’s got to take the reins here.'”
“Lovesick Blues” didn’t make the album, although Hank Williams is still represented with “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive”. The selections range from “Roly Poly”, Bob Wills’ ode to a toddler, to songs immortalized by Elvis (“Love Me”), Gram Parsons (“Streets Of Baltimore”) and Kris Kristofferson (“Best Of All Possible Worlds”). Willie himself gets two nods (“Gotta Get Drunk” and “Night Life”), and Townes Van Zandt one (“No Place To Fall”).
The overall mood is light even when the lyrics turn dark, thanks to the Willies’ obvious affection for the music and for each other. And while country is the prevailing sound, it is never forced; the band swings as much as it honky-tonks, and there is no artificial twang in the singing or playing.
“Even the stuff that we do that is country, like Bob Wills or Hank Williams, all of those come from different eras of country, and different places too, like Texas or Tennessee,” Julian says. “So the only way to really make it work would be to not try to stick to some genre or try to imitate what was already there.”
“Yeah,” Jones adds, “that’s what cool about playing in this band is that nobody really tries to do that. We just try to play like us.”
The originals are songs that various members had from one place or another that seemed to fit in with the Little Willies vibe. “It’s Not You, It’s Me”, by Julian and Ashlee Monroe, sounds like a classic country kiss-off; Alexander’s “Roll On” wouldn’t sound out of place on a Norah Jones album, but it has a wistful lope that sits comfortably between Townes and Willie; and “Easy As The Rain”, by Julian and Campilongo, is a duet that would work fine for Tim McGraw and Faith Hill if not George and Tammy.
Then there’s “Lou Reed”, the album’s closing track and its goofiest moment. It imagines the band driving through West Texas — “the land of beef and pork” — and finding the black-clad icon of New York cool in a pasture, tipping cows. When they ask him what he’s doing, he just growls, “Go screw.”
“His personality is so enigmatic,” says Julian, who hastens to add that he’s a Lou Reed fan. “He’s the type of personality you can put in any setting and he’s just the guy in the leather jacket with that look on his face. You could write a song about him doing most anything and it would be comical.”
Nobody in the band actually knows Reed. “We’re a little scared,” Jones says. “I suppose we should write him a note and just say, hey, this is in good fun…”
The Willies recorded the album without the supervision or even knowledge of their respective record labels. It is being released on their own Milking Bull Records, but EMI is distributing it.
“The label always likes to have something to sell,” Jones says. “At first, I don’t know what they thought, but they’ve kind of come around to the idea. It was kind of funny, the head of all of EMI, I had lunch with him and somebody at the label told me, ‘I think he’s psyched that she has a little country band to get all her country out of her.’ Because he doesn’t think country sells, so he doesn’t want it on my CDs.”
The band hopes to play some shows to support the album, maybe even do a few short tours later in the year — although as with everything Willies-related, that will depend on its members’ busy careers. Still, Jones says, she hopes to keep the Little Willies as an ongoing project no matter what else she’s doing.
“I don’t really think of it as just a side project,” she says. “It’s a really important part of my musical life. I think we all think of it as this great band we’re in. And I think we will continue to do it as long as we have fun.”