Take a quintet of players from around the United States but living — at least, initially — in New York. All are pursuing their own music. One of them, in fact, becomes a multi-Grammy-winning sensation. But after hours, the force that continues to knit them together as a band is a sound not at all plentiful in the Big Apple: country music.
Meet the Little Willies, a country cover band like no other. Its ranks include guitarist/vocalist Richard Julian, guitarist Jim Campilongo, bassist Lee Alexander, drummer Dan Rieser and a singer/pianist by the name of Norah Jones. Its mission: to nurture a love of traditionalist country music, both familiar and obscure, that uses a viewpoint more New York than Nashville.
"All of us grew up on this music," said Julian, who will perform with Jones and the rest of The Little Willies on Monday for WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour. "It's just different when you're raised up North like I was and Norah was. Country music wasn't really played up there.
"I was born in '67. So as that whole outlaw movement started happening in the '70s, guys like Waylon (Jennings) and Willie (Nelson) were getting played everywhere. But they weren't on the radio up North. At least they weren't where I was living at the time in Delaware.
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"But my mom was a farm girl from the South, so she was in touch with what was going on. She would always have Willie's records playing in the house, and we would always go see people like Emmylou (Harris) whenever they played around us. But as far as a presence on the airwaves or in anybody's conversation, country music just wasn't part of the culture there back then.
Initially, The Little Willies' repertoire steered toward what was — to the band members, at least — traditional country favorites. Its self-titled 2006 debut album included the country-swing chestnut Roly Poly, popularized by, among others, Bob Wills; and songs by Nelson, Hank Williams, Kris Kristofferson and Townes Van Zandt.
On its follow-up album, For the Good Times, due out in January, The Little Willies drew up a more far-reaching repertoire that ran from the vintage trucking song Diesel Smoke, Dangerous Curves (recorded through decades past by Red Simpson, Burl Ives and Doye O'Dell, among others) to more seemingly obvious fare (the Kristofferson-written title tune and the Dolly Parton staple Jolene) to original works (Campilongo's Tommy Rockwood).
"It's kind of funny," Julian said. "I think our repertoire is actually getting more obscure. Songs like Diesel Smoke, ... I don't think people know that one unless they come from a certain generation.
"Our last record had Roly Poly on there. Now, you could probably go down Broadway in Nashville right now and hear a band playing that tune. Or in Austin. Somebody is bound to be playing it. It's not that obscure. But in New York it is. It's very obscure. So it was really fun for us, people who really dig this music, to present these songs in a way that reflects where we were living and where we were coming from at the time."
Country appeal or not, the inevitable question in addressing the music of The Little Willies is Jones' involvement. How is it that a songstress known internationally for her own jazz-inspired music has the time and intent to moonlight with her friends in a country cover band?
"Well, Norah is a really great musician," Julian said. "And not all recording artists are great musicians. Some are really just artists or just writers. But Norah can slide in and out of a lot of configurations. I think she really enjoys doing that.
"She reminds me a lot of Bruce Hornsby, a great artist and musician who just really loves to play and get in with other groups and different kinds of music."
But what of the future? With Jones still fronting a lucrative solo career and the other band members pursuing various performance avenues to showcase their original music, how big of a priority will The Little Willies be after For the Good Times surfaces?
"Well, it's been about six years since we put out our last album, so I guess that answers the question," Julian said. "Mostly, it just takes the right window in our schedules to open to where everybody is simultaneously not focusing on other projects. The busiest one, naturally, is Norah. But Jim and I have our own things going, too.
"We started doing this just so we would have a late-night gig that wasn't some high-pressure deal. We just hit some clubs and played some music that we really liked. Everything evolved from that.
"I don't know if we will do some full-on national tour. At the end of the day, what we do is mostly cover tunes, so I don't know if everybody wants to do that all year long in some blown-out way. The fun for us is to play whenever the music feels fresh. That's the spirit we always want in whatever we do."