Popular music focuses so intently on careers that it discourages side projects and off-the-cuff sessions with friends. Even when rappers rotate through each other’s albums, or when rockers or country acts sing a duet, it’s more often about career positioning than creative inspiration. The further outside the commercial mainstream musicians exists, the more they tend to mingle. Jazz and bluegrass, in particular, tend to encourage players to shift collaborators and see what arises from the pairings.
So it’s easy to imagine that an international company like EMI gasped when Norah Jones, one of its hottest stars, informed the label that she wanted to put out a record with her country side band, The Little Willies—a tongue-in-cheek name inspired by Willie Nelson. Jones has performed with the band for three years in the Living Room, a small club on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. EMI eventually agreed to release the project, although on the group’s own imprint, Milking Bull Records, instead of on Blue Note, Jones’ usual label. According to Jones, EMI’s worldwide chief executive told her he hoped the project might work the country influences out of her system so she’d leave such songs off of her million-selling albums.
The Little Willies allow Jones to let off a little pressure while once again showing how well she lends a sophisticated touch to barroom country and Western swing songs. By now, most of her mates in the Willies work in her touring band, as she’s slowly brought her friends into her road show as she’s become more famous. Truly a collaborative effort, the album was produced by Jones’ bassist and boyfriend, Lee Alexander, and features guitarist and co-lead vocalist Richard Julian, electric guitarist Jim Campilongo, drummer Dan Rieser and keyboardist Jon Dryden.
Their comfort with each other is obvious, as is their shared love of good country melodies and wordplay. Even on a novelty like Bob Wills’ “Roly Poly,” they revel in the musical nuances of Texas swing.
That attitude—having fun with, not making fun of—is crucial to why The Little Willies is an enjoyable, if lightweight, collection. The players never stoop to condescending takes on country’s cornpone pleasures, although the closing original, “Lou Reed”—a fantasy about catching the leather-clad urban rocker cow-tipping in rural Texas—is a fruitless in-joke.
But while they don’t patronize the style, they also don’t often delve into the pathos of the darker lyrics on the album, either. They turn Hank Williams’ “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive” into a jaunty romp reminiscent of Little Feat or The Band’s “Life Is a Carnival,” and it works because the rollicking arrangement is so engaging. The same is true of how much fun they have with the snappy shuffle beat given Kris Kristofferson’s “Best of All Possible Worlds” and Willie Nelson’s “Gotta Get Drunk,” both set up primarily to let the instrumentalists reel off some playful, hot-jazz runs. That’s where the Little Willies excel: As jazz-influenced pickers working out some cool licks on swinging roots tunes.
In a few cases, the Willies balance these concise musical workouts with affecting tunes that give the lyrics as much weight as music. Julian’s nicely restrained touch on “Streets of Baltimore” brings out the quiet pain of a man who goes to great lengths to give his woman everything she wanted—only to see his generosity turn her into someone who didn’t need him anymore. Their take is closer to Gram Parson’s version than to Bobby Bare’s 1966 hit, but they tighten up the arrangement to give it more propulsive power.
Similarly, Julian turns in a touching version of Townes Van Zandt’s great “No Place to Fall,” a sentiment Jones matches on “Roll On,” a new song that could’ve fit comfortably on her solo albums. The only places the Willies really fall short are on the generic, blues-tinged covers of Nelson’s “Night Life” and Elvis’ “Love Me.” Jones sings them both well, but without bringing anything new to tunes that have been heard in dozens of other versions.
While Jones is obviously fully invested in The Little Willies, it’s not likely the band will become more than a diversion. Tres Chicas started exactly that way—as an occasional outing that evolved into a recording project designed as a one-off lark.
But the trio’s first album, released on Yep Roc Records in 2004, gained such attention that the band members have decided to make the Chicas their primary gig. Unlike Jones, who’s had enormous commercial success, the decision was easier for three women used to working on the margins. Caitlin Cary, a former member of Whiskeytown, has recorded two outstanding solo albums and a fine duet project with Thad Cockrell, none of which has received the sales or media attention of the first Tres Chicas album. Cary’s partners in the group are Tonya Lamm, formerly of the Americana band Hazeldine, and Lynn Blakey, leader of Glory Fountain and a member of the rock bands Let’s Active and Oh OK.
The Chicas’ second album, Bloom, Red & the Ordinary Girl, is a more serious, better conceived follow-up to their debut. To make the record, they left North Carolina for London and engaged co-producers Neil Brockbank, an Englishman who’s worked with Bryan Ferry and Nick Lowe, and Robert Trehern, who also plays drums in the record’s core band featuring keyboardist Geraint Wilkins and bassist Matt Radford. Brockbank and Trehern help the band create a warmer, fuller sound.
The trio’s vocal blend has grown more stunning as well; not only do they sound beautiful—as do most any thee-part harmonies done in tune—but they also express emotion in ways that aren’t always easy for combined voices. The three women alternate leads and harmonies, working solo, in duets and as a trio, sometimes together and sometimes playing off each other, in ways that keeps the songs fresh and immediate.
The production is similarly lush and gorgeous, a contemporary-cool update of both the Nashville Sound and Muscle Shoals soul. Spare use of a string section, burnished brass and a vibraphone providing melodic counterpoints add depth to brushed drums, a slow-pulsing bass, strummed acoustic guitars, swelling keyboards and tasteful lead and steel guitar accents. The sound is organic and timeless but isn’t stuck in the past.
The first four songs—“Drop Me Down,” “Stone Love Song,” “My Love” and “All the Shade Trees in Bloom”—provide wonderful entrée to the album’s pleasures. It doesn’t always maintain that level of consistency, but plenty of treasures are to be found, from the classy soul of “Only Broken” to the Celtic-inflected “Red” to the bittersweet sensuality of “Slip So Easily.”
Cary and Blakey take most of the writing credits, occasionally collaborating on lyrics but just as often working on their own or with other co-writers. For Cary, it’s another triumph, as she continues to extend a catalog that marks her as the Emmylou Harris of her generation—someone who emerged from the shadow of a boy-genius to create a career as a restless musical spirit who maintains a consistent degree of quality and emotional resonance in whatever setting she puts herself in.
Hopefully, the success of the Chicas, and to a lesser degree the Willies, will encourage other musicians to stay open to new partnerships and possibilities.