It took Norah Jones precisely one year to become a household name. Her debut album, Come Away With Me, was released in February 2002, and by the following February it had sold four million copies and she had won five Grammys.
A side project she created the following year is less well known. As a diversion from the pressures of following up one of the best-selling debuts of all time, Jones and four friends formed the band the Little Willies (named after her childhood hero, Willie Nelson) and began playing her favorite country songs at a series of unannounced gigs at the Living Room, a tiny music venue in New York.
“I think I had to leave home for me to know how much country music meant to me,” said Jones, who moved to New York in 1999 after studying jazz composition and performance in high school and college in Texas. “I listened to Hank Williams, Dolly Parton and Willie growing up, but I wanted to play jazz. When I listened to Bill Evans, I transcribed the chords. When I listened to Red Headed Stranger, I just listened to enjoy it. But it really seeped in more than I could have known.”
Almost six years after the Little Willies released their self-titled 2006 debut, the band—which features Lee Alexander on bass, Jim Campilongo and Richard Julian on guitar, and Dan Rieser on drums—is finally unveiling its sophomore set, For the Good Times. The album, which will be released on January 10, includes covers of songs by Loretta Lynn, Johnny Cash, and Dolly Parton.
In the final days of December, we put Jones on the spot and asked her to create an on-the-fly five-song playlist of her favorite Texas songwriters—artists she’s been inspired by, performed alongside or covered with the Little Willies.
Willie Nelson, “Permanently Lonely”
“He’s my No. 1,” said Jones, who has earned Grammy nominations for three of her duets with the country legend—“Wurlitzer Prize (I Don’t Want to Get Over You),” “Dreams Come True,” and “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” The Little Willies’ version of Nelson’s “Permanently Lonely” is on their upcoming album.
“Willie’s songs are deceptively complicated,” Jones said. “He’s like a twisted jazz musician under all that country. He writes these chords that are just beautiful—the way they come together so simply, yet they go against normal forms that you learn as a musician. But he makes them sound so beautiful and simple. You don’t try to that, you just do. And that’s what’s great about Willie: he just does.”
Townes Van Zandt, “No Place to Fall”
“No Place to Fall” is considered by many to be one of the late great Texas songwriter’s signature songs. The Little Willies included it on their 2006 debut.
“I tend to listen to Townes when I’m feeling melancholy,” Jones said. “And this is one of Townes’ most beautiful songs. For the Little Willies, it was one of the easiest and most natural things we’ve recorded. That’s the best kind of situation, when the song kind of plays itself. For that to happen, it has to be a pretty incredible song.”
Kris Kristofferson, “Best of All Possible Worlds”
Kristofferson recorded “Best of All Possible Worlds” in 1970 for his debut album Kristofferson, and 36 years later, the Little Willies laid down the same track on their debut release. (The title track of the band’s new album, For the Good Times, is also one of Kristofferson’s songs.)
“Best of All Possible Worlds” is “so much fun because it stacks up a lot of words and a lot of clever lines; it’s so well crafted, but also so soulful,” Jones said. “That’s the trick to songwriting—you want craft, but you also need soul and honesty. And who’s as inherently soulful as Kris Kristofferson? Look at ‘For the Good Times.’ It’s one of the most heartbreaking, beautiful lyrics ever. If he only wrote those two songs, he’d be on the list. But obviously, he’s given us so much more.”
Sly and the Family Stone, “If You Want Me to Stay”
“I’ve always loved the fact that Sly Stone was born in Denton,” said Jones, who went to college in Denton at the University of North Texas. She has yet to record a Sly Stone song.
“He’s just one of those people,” she said. “You put on a Sly Stone record and it changes your mood. It feels so good. I might be crazy, but I also feel like I can hear the Texas in his singing. I feel like you can hear the country in the back of his voice and the pronunciations, the way he splits syllables.”
Cindy Walker, “You Don’t Know Me”
Walker, a country songwriter, had Top 10 hits in every decade from the 1940s to the ’80s, and big-name musicians from Ray Charles and Bing Crosby to Elvis Presley and Nelson performed her songs.
“I didn’t know much about her until Willie did that ‘Songs of Cindy Walker’ album and I realized I knew half of those songs. I grew up on them,” Jones said. “‘You Don’t Know Me’ is so fantastic because it strikes the perfect balance of simplicity, directness and heart.”