However charming the Little Willies’ self-titled debut may have been, neither its low-key tone nor the six years that have passed since its release gave any real reason to view the group as something more than a one-off lark for Norah Jones and a few of her like-minded friends. But along comes For the Good Times, and it turns out to be an unexpected, entirely welcome return from an act that now sounds an awful lot like a real band. While the album sticks to the general formula of its predecessor (covers of classic country tunes with a focus on thoughtful, creative arrangements), the consistently on-point execution of that formula makes For the Good Times an endlessly likable record.
The Little Willies aren’t much more than a cover band, but their tight focus on genre archetype and their respectful but not overly reverent approach to arranging songs elevates their work beyond a simple gimmick or pastiche. Instead, their expertly performed, two-stepping arrangement on “Fist City” owes as much to Nancy Sinatra as it does to Loretta Lynn, and the drastic tempo changes on Ralph Stanley’s “I Worship You” heighten the song’s sense of drama. It isn’t a matter of the Little Willies filtering vintage country songs through Jones’s cabaret-pop aesthetic: The interpretive choices that Jones and her cohorts make with each of these songs are smart and are always in service to the songs themselves.
Jones, for her part, turns in some of the feistiest performances of her career here. Her delivery of Lefty Frizzell’s “If You’ve Got the Money (I’ve Got the Time)” is uninhibited and joyful; she’s one of just a handful of singers who’ve managed not to embarrass themselves trying to cover Loretta Lynn. Richard Julian, who shares lead vocal duties, is every bit as impressive, sounding like a dead ringer for Lyle Lovett on a languid reading of Hank Williams’s “Lovesick Blues” and turning in a forceful recitation on “Diesel Smoke, Dangerous Curves.” Jim Campilongo displays some fiery guitar work reminiscent of Dex Romweber on the latter track, and the raucous instrumental track he composed, “Tommy Rockwood,” reinforces the idea that the Little Willies are well versed in the conventions of traditional country music.
While it’s clear that all of the players know the genre well, that depth of knowledge makes the song selection on For the Good Times perhaps a bit too easy. Compared to a cover band like the Detroit Cobras, who successfully balance genre standards with more obscure choices, the Little Willies stick mostly to the familiar. Jones sings Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” beautifully, but that song has been covered hundreds of times already, while Parton’s catalogue is full of lesser-known but no less brilliant songs that would lend themselves well to the Little Willies’ approach. The title track, “Lovesick Blues,” and Willie Nelson’s “Permanently Lonely” are all genre classics for good reason, but their inclusion seems somewhat rote. But if the song selection wants for inspiration, the Little Willies’ performances never do, and it’s that enthusiasm that carries For the Good Times and makes it an unabashedly fun listen.