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The Little Willies

For the Good Times – 2012 (EMI)

Reviewed by Brian Baker

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CDs by The Little Willies

There are unlikely supergroups and some that are inexplicable, and then there's the Little Willies. If you randomly sampled the catalogs of slinky jazz/pop chanteuse Norah Jones and atmospheric pop/rock guitarist Richard Julian, any subsequent pondering on the nature of acollaboration between the two would probably not veer anywhere near classic country. Regardless of expectations, Jones, Julian and a crack band of NYC sessioners assembled in 2003 around a collective love of the genre and began playing sporadic shows and benefits, leading to their eponymous 2006 debut which, just as unexpectedly, hit the Top 10 of the country charts and nicked the Top 50 on the pop side.

The Little Willies' sophomore album, "For the Good Times," generally follows their debut's blueprint as the quintet (Jones, Julian, guitarist Jim Campilongo, bassist Lee Alexander, drummer Dan Reiser) revisits some well-traveled country classics and polishes them to a contemporary, but respectfully authentic glow.

Given their professional pedigree, it's hard to suppress the smoky late night jazz vibe that emanates from the Little Willies even at their hillbilliest, from Ralph Stanley's I Worship You to the much-covered Lovesick Blues to Loretta Lynn's scorned woman anthem Fist City to Lefty Frizell's honky tonking If You've Got the Money I've Got the Time. In this context, the vocal similarities between Julian and Lyle Lovett are easy to pick out, particularly on Diesel Smoke, Dangerous Curves and Johnny Cash's Wide Open Road, while Jones' expressive jazz phrasing lends itself well to weepers like Dolly Parton's Jolene and the title track, written by Kris Kristofferson and immortalized by Ray Price.

Unlike the Little Willies' debut album, "For the Good Times" offers just one original, the surfabilly stomp of the largely instrumental Tommy Rockwood, written by Campilongo, but they throw in a true curve ball with their rendition of Foul Owl on the Prowl, the redneck ode that Quincy Jones and the Bergmans penned for the 1967 film "In the Heat of the Night." The Little Willies might be big city country, but it's not done with a sense of hipster irony. Rather, the band plays with an abiding love for the genre and an immense amount of musical talent.