Norah Jones shines with country classics
The Little Willies For The Good Times (Parlophone)
Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Dean Martin, Al Green, Johnny Cash and Aaron Neville are just some of those who've also recorded the song that's the title track of The Little Willies' second album, For the Good Times. If you missed the first one, seven years ago, you mightn't know that this is a band formed by Norah Jones and a bunch of mates to play country covers at low-key gigs at a time when Norah's career as a pop jazz singer was going stratospheric.
Jones was raised in Dallas where she couldn't escape hearing country music. "It seeped in more than I could have known," she admits.
Her favourite, who Jones describes as "a twisted jazz musician", was Willie Nelson. Hence the silly band name The Little Willies. Luckily there's nothing dumb about the band's treatment of 11 classic songs on this 12-track album. They also include a twanging instrumental by their guitarist Jim Campilongo.
The Little Willies is a group effort, with Jones sharing vocal duties with guitarist Richard Julian, whose recent solo album Girls Need Attention features Wilco guitarist Nels Cline. While the band keep things pared down to a rootsy old-style sound, it's Jones who ignites the package with flawless, powerfully emotive vocal performances. And Julian kicks the Johnny Cash Wide Open Road into an impressive country honk and finds the desolation in Nelson's Permanently Lonely.
The bass and drums rhythm section are right on the groove throughout, with Campilongo supplying Duane Eddy and Bert Weedon-style licks as Julian and Jones trade lines on Lefty Frizell's If You've Got The Money, I've Got The Time and album opener, Ralph Stanley's I Worship You.
The rippling Floyd Kramer-style piano accompaniment is by Jones, whose playing is as soulful as her singing. She teases out the tearjerking essence of Scotty Wiseman's 1939 epic mope Remember Me. "The saddest words I ever heard were words of parting . . ." Jones also turns in a bravura performance on Dolly Parton's Jolene. Some might protest that a bunch of New York-based musicians don't sound like authentic Nashville cats. But it's a mighty fine record. HHHII