The Little Willies: Norah Jones' Country Charm

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She’s not quite sure how it happened. But nine-time Grammy winner Norah Jones swears that she never set out to become the Queen Of Quirky Collaborations. To date, she’s logged so many unusual guest appearances—with such diverse stars as OutKast, Q-Tip, Herbie Hancock, Foo Fighters, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton and the late Ray Charles—that she was compelled to anthologize them all on her recent …Featuring collection.

“People always wonder how I get these people to sing with me, but they ask me to do it, so I do it,” says the dulcet-toned jazz/blues diva, who even crooned alongside Elmo on a Sesame Street episode. “Random artists ask me to do stuff that I wouldn’t have thought even knew my name, and it’s cool; it makes me feel good.” She pauses, then sighs. “I guess I’m just really very easy!”

This curious tradition started a decade ago with Charlie Hunter. “He had me sing on his record before my first record, Come Away With Me, ever came out,” says Jones, who just re-teamed with her classic-country side project The Little Willies for a follow-up to their eponymous 2006 debut, For The Good Times. “So that was probably the first thing I got to do. And now people just ask me to do stuff a lot, and I say ‘yes’ because it always seems like fun. These offers are like no-brainers, usually.” Her favorite opportunity? Saying “yes” twice, she adds. “Because I just love working with the same people I’ve worked with again, you know?”

Thus, the keyboardist jumped at the chance to regroup The Willies, which initially formed for fun back in 2003, so Jones could play old C&W standards at New York nightclub The Living Room with her four chums—bassist Lee Alexander, drummer Dan Rieser, guitarist Jim Campilongo and guitarist/co-vocalist Richard Julian. And she doesn’t phone it in on Good Times—she tears it up, putting her own smoky topspin on chestnuts like Dolly Parton’s “Jolene,” Ralph Stanley’s “I Worship You,” and Loretta Lynn’s scrappy “Fist City.” And she rises to new interpretive heights when she duets with Julian, on Hank Williams’ “Lovesick Blues,” Lefty Frizzell’s “If You’ve Got The Money I’ve Got The Time,” and the tiptoe-tentative “Foul Owl On The Prowl” (a surreal number unearthed from the In The Heat Of The Night soundtrack).

How did this unlikely lineup first coalesce? San Francisco-bred axeman Campilongo picks up the tale. On an early visit to New York before he moved there, he was invited to rehearse with a then-unknown Jones. “So Norah sent me the CD-R of what was going to be her first record, and I thought it was great and learned all the material,” he recalls. There was just one little problem. “Our first rehearsal was scheduled for 11 a.m., September 11th. 2001. And I remember calling Norah around 9:30 and saying ‘I don’t know what’s going on, but one of the Twin Towers is burning, so I don’t know if you should come over or not.’ And that was the last call I made for 30 hours because all of the cellphones went dead.”

Naturally, their Sept. 13 Manhattan concert was canceled. But even though they’d never met in person, Jones and Campilongo felt a strong camaraderie after living through the World Trade Center disaster, and they resolved to finally jam together, just for fun. “So we decided ‘Let’s play some country music,’ and we all realized really quickly that we loved it, and that’s how The Willies got started,” says Campilongo, who’d been blazing his own twangy trail with his rockabilly backup band The 10 Gallon Cats. And choosing the name—an obvious Stetson-tip to Nelson—was the easiest part.

Julian was the last recruit. In 2003, the solo singer tracked a session with Jones for a Waylon Jennings tribute disc, covering “The Wurlitzer Prize.” Julian’s mother was a North Carolina farm girl, so growing up in Delaware, nothing but hickory-smoked country was playing around the family home, from Kris Kristofferson to the legendary Louvin Brothers. He even wound up befriending Townes Van Zandt; the late Texas troubadour frequently crashed at his New York apartment. But the pair had never compared Nashville-loving notes before.

“So Norah and I started talking about Townes, Waylon and country,” Julian notes. “And she said she was getting together with Jim and Dan that night to play some country tunes at The Living Room, and it sounded like a real low-key affair. So I went down there to play the Waylon tune with her, and it went so well that we just decided that I would be in the band, too. And I think she wanted to do some harmonies, and the band could’ve used some mid-range, with the acoustic guitar in there kind of gluing everything together.”

The Little Willies featured songs Julian and Campilongo had known all their lives, like “Roly Poly,” “Tennessee Stud,” “I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive,” and Van Zandt’s “No Place To Fall.” And they began work on For The Good Times three years ago—sessions were difficult to arrange since the busy musicians were rarely in one place at the same time. But The Willies decided to push their creative boundaries this time out. Campilongo—renowned for his fiery fretwork—contributed a chugging instrumental called “Tommy Rockwood,” named for a Big Apple booking agent. He also prodded Julian into growling an obscure trucker anthem, “Diesel Smoke, Dangerous Curves.”

“I tried to get out of it, but Jim really wanted to do that tune because it’s really guitar-centered,” says Julian, who booms the “Diesel” vocals in a Red Sovine-deep register. “I didn’t like being put in the position of having to sing a song about being a truck driver. But we got ourselves good and cooked on homemade margaritas and I had a fun time singing that tune. We cut a really cool track, I think.”

Is there a modus operandi, a guiding aesthetic tenet for The Little Willies? Hey—don’t overthink it, cautions Julian: “Styles come and go, and we’re not trying to revive anything. It’s just that the tunes we play are ones that we feel like we can deliver, songs that we can bring our own New York improvisational sensibility to. We’re very, umm, loose-knit in terms of our approach.”

Touring behind Good Times might prove difficult—Jones is heavily involved in the writing and recording of her next solo set, due this spring. How many side groups can this workaholic handle? “It’s dwindling—I need to get a new one ’cause right now I’m down to only one other, Puss N Boots, an extension of The Sloppy Joannes. I play lead guitar, which is totally enjoyable for me. And we, too, just play covers mostly. So it’s a really fun band.”

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