Music News & Reviews

Critic's pick: The Little Willies, 'For the Good Times'

It figures. With most contemporary country stars serving up tunes that are little more than half-baked pop, is it any wonder a pack of jazz-directed popsters would emerge with the winter's most traditionally flavored country record?

Welcome to For the Good Times, the second album by The Little Willies. And a good time it is, too. An ensemble of past and present New Yorkers boasting Grammy-winning piano jazz-pop princess Norah Jones as one of its two principal vocalists, The Little Willies rummage through decades of old-school country gems (in the case of For the Good Times, classics by Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash and Lefty Frizzell) and perform them with perhaps an excess of spit-and-polish in the production but also a level of compensatory barroom cheer.

In short, this is a slick but scholarly workman's holiday of an album.

Jones is the marquee name in The Little Willies, but For the Good Times boasts a hearty group spirit. Rhythm guitarist Richard Julian splits vocal chores with Jones and approaches his singing with a decidedly folky attitude, as in the stark, cocktail lounge-lit contours of the neglected Willie Nelson gem Permanently Lonely.

Jones largely sounds liberated from the studied piano pop of her own songs, although her treatment of the Hank Williams hit Lovesick Blues, presented here as a bluesy lullaby, generously borrows from her jazz preferences.

But in true country fashion, the singers sound best when they work with and off one another. Ralph Stanley's I Worship You opens with boozy, antique harmonies before exchanging verses that allow the tune to shift from a woozy waltz to hot-rod guitar joy rides.

The latter is the product of The Little Willies' true scene stealer, guitarist Jim Campilongo. Versed in the alert, animated guitar chatter of Chet Atkins and the more rustic country soul of Merle Travis but egged on by an intuitive spark all his own, Campilongo simmers this music with abundant cheer.

From the jazzy barnyard guitar leads that color a shuffle-style revision of the Frizzell staple If You've Got the Money I've Got the Time to the twilight blues strut highlighting Foul Owl on the Prowl, a tune pulled from the non-country soundtrack to In the Heat of the Night, to the white-hot original instrumental Tommy Rockwood that falls somewhere between Buck Owens and Clarence White, Campilongo is the true life of this roots-infatuated celebration.

Make no mistake, For the Goods Times is far from a definitive portrait of traditional Americana. But that doesn't seem to be the intent. The album respectfully plugs into a vintage country spirit that ignites a blast of summery sunshine. What a warm and welcoming sound with which to brave the dead of winter.