Norah Jones Covers Country With the Little Willies

Band of Longtime Friends Sing Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton Songs on New Album

Norah Jones loves classic country music, and now she’s indulging it with a side project, the Little Willies. She and four longtime friends have recorded lesser-known tunes by Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson, as well as familiar favorites by Kris Kristofferson, Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton, for their second album, For the Good Times.

The title fits perfectly, too, because the album is totally laidback and good-natured.

“There’s a real comfort level for me singing these songs, and for me, there’s a comfort level playing with these guys because we’ve all known each other so long,” Jones said during the band’s recent visit to Nashville. “It’s nice to play with people who you feel like have your back. It’s so easy.”

Jones joined bassist Lee Alexander, guitarist Jim Campilongo, vocalist-guitarist Richard Julian and drummer Dan Rieser to chat about the new project, their love of vinyl and their modest hopes for the new album.

CMT.com: I know you like to get together and play in the clubs around New York. Do you just show up and play, or do you announce it somehow?

Jones: We come up with silly names. When we started doing this, I was wary of feeling like I was on display. (laughs) I remember in the beginning, I just liked to have a regular bar gig. It was nice for me to try new things, change it up and not feel a lot of pressure. And now when we play, it’s just so fun. But we don’t want it to get so crowded that our friends can’t get in.

Did you all pick up right where you left off with the last record?

Campilongo: We were a little rusty, maybe in the beginning.

Alexander: I hadn’t played bass for three years. I moved out to the desert and race cars now.

Jones: His fingers were bleeding a little, but … in a way it was interesting to take a break because we didn’t play for a couple of years. And when we started playing again, it felt better, I thought.

Julian: It did to me, too.

I’m sure some of you grew up listening to this kind of music with your parents or your grandparents. Have you had a chance to play the new album for them?

Jones: My mom loves it. “Ooh, I really like that harmony!” Stuff like that. My mom’s one comment that I remember was, “Yeah, that sounds good, but you really need that dissonant harmony to pull that one off.” I’m like, “What do you mean? We didn’t pull it off?”

Julian: Norah’s mom wrote me an email to say she liked the record, but then she said, “I still want someone in that band to really learn how to yodel.” (laughs)

Alexander: I played it for my mom. I didn’t realize how many songs my mom actually knows. I haven’t sent one to my dad yet, but I will. He has the first [album]. He really likes it. He grew up in Kentucky, and he was a big fan of country music growing up.

Julian: My mom knows all of the songs. When Jim told her about being put on the spot the other night and having to play “Cannonball Rag,” she said, “Oh, ‘Cannonball Rag’! I love that one!”

Do you guys like vinyl?

Campilongo: Oh, yeah, I’m still on eBay every day buying vinyl. It seems that it’s getting more and more popular. I know in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, there’s vinyl popping up all over the place. And lately I’ve been given more EPs and LPs than CDs.

What is it about vinyl that makes it appealing, and why do you think it’s coming back?

Jones: Because it sounds so much better — the quality of music. I mean, actually in the last year, my ears hurt. I have a pair of ear buds that are way more convenient than carrying around big ol’ headphones, but there’s something about the quality. My lazy butt buying MP3s. …. They’re very harmful in the long run and my ears have been damaged by it.

Julian: And, plus, just holding them and the smell of the liner.

Campilongo: I have never liked CDs. I remember when they came out, I had a little “Ban CDs” button, like a Ghostbusters button.

Jones: You did!? (laughs)

With this band’s name, I have to ask: What do you like the best about Willie Nelson?

Jones: I love the way he just plays guitar and sings — and he’s Willie. Maybe he’s a country artist, yes, but he’s also just an artist. He sings anything, and he sounds like Willie. He can sing a reggae tune, he can sing a jazz tune. I mean, he transcends the genre. It’s honest, and it’s just Willie.

When people hear this record, what do you hope people will take away from it?

Jones: I just hope they smile.

Julian: I hope they have fun — as much fun as we had making it, really.

It’s just for enjoyment, right?

Jones: Yeah, it’s for pure enjoyment. We’re not trying to make a statement. We’re just playing these songs because we love them. … You can listen to them however you want, but hopefully you’ll just enjoy it.