Friday, November 27, 2009

Willin', Little Feat (1971, 1972)

Now that we've observed the most American of holidays, I thought it appropriate to give a wave of the turkey wishbone to an artist who this fall was posthumously bestowed the President's Award by the criminally under-promoted Americana Music Association - Lowell George, founder of Little Feat.

An event that's been described as " ... always more about the celebration of music than it is about stars and egos," naturally the awards ceremony is nowhere to be seen on any television channel, but everything I've read about it over the years indicates it's something we're all the worse off for having missed.  Held at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium, it's a veritable cornucopia of jams and all-around collegiality among musical greats of all stripes. 

Americana, in the context of music, is one of those terms that defies description, but to the extent that it's possible to define it, it connotes contemporary music deriving its sound from myriad roots influences. The AMA gives the President's Award to someone considered to have been a pioneer in this genre, if you want to call it that.  Previous winners in this specialty category have been Jerry Garcia, Townes Van Zandt, Mickey Newbury, John Hartford, the Carter Family, Gram Parsons and Doug Sahm. For the first time next year, Americana music will have its own category at the Grammy Awards. 

Lowell George's fate may have been sealed when he appeared, at the age of 6, on that most American of early TV shows, Ted Mack's Original Amateur Hour, playing the harmonica with his brother. I used to watch that with my grandmother; for all I know, I saw him.  But that was just the beginning for the little prodigy - George played many instruments, including flute, slide guitar, saxophone and sitar.  (For a real hoot, see him giving guitar lessons to who knows who in this priceless YouTube video.) 

In his capacity as Little Feat's leader, George is most often associated with the world-weary but glorious ballad, Willin.'  The legend about this song goes that Frank Zappa kicked George out of the Mothers Of Invention (he can be heard singing and playing on Weasels Ripped My Flesh) over it, so opposed to drugs and alcohol was he.  Zappa wasn't alone - the song, once it became a Little Feat staple, was pretty much banned from radio airplay due to those references.  

The song was recorded three times in the 70s - a version with just him and Ry Cooder on steel guitar for Little Feat's self-titled debut album; a full-out version with a glittering Bill Payne piano solo and the band's lovely multiple harmonies on their next album, Sailin' Shoes, and then in 1978, as part of their live album Waiting For Columbus. 

Over the years, no one really knew where to place Little Feat genre-wise - was it blues rock? country boogie? comedy funk?  I guess that what made them Americana in the best sense of the word, and Lowell George deserving of his President's Award:  they took what they liked of all their influences, stirred them with a wooden spoon, and served the resulting gumbo to their adoring audience - who could have cared less how to define it.



Wade said...

I love "Willin'," despite not knowing for many years what the words in that chorus are ("Weed, whites and wine.") I have a weird category of songs, or maybe everybody does but nobody talks about it, which consist of songs that, the first time I heard them, I would swear that I've heard them before though I know (I think) that I haven't. "Runnin' On Empty" and "I've Just Seen a Face" are two others in that category.

Can't get on the Gram Parsons bandwagon or the TVZ bandwagon (well, I can get a little bit on his, but both those guys are celebrated all out of proportion to what they actually did, I think. Many people disagree with me, I am aware.)

Stitchwhiz said...

Hi Wendy,
I embedded a youtube of Little Feat singing Willin' on my blog last summer after a road trip home to DFW that took us through Tucumcari. Is it a little known fact that it was Steve Earle who wrote the song? BTW, I've been reading the Joe Jackson bio that we spoke of awhile back, and I noted that Joe identifies Little Feat as one of his strong influences early on in his career. Pretty cool You can check out my blog post here if you'd like. Thanks for writing. I love your blog. Did you get a chance to see the HBO R&R Hall of Fame anniversary show? Take care,

wendy said...

Mary, I have not seen a single source putting Steve Earle as the composer of Willin' - where are you getting that info? He covered it ...

I do recall that Joe Jackson named Little Feat as an influence - isn't that book great? I wish I hadn't read it yet so that I could discover it all over again.

Thanks for your support! I did not see the Rock Hall show - don't get HBO, unfortunately. Maybe someday on dvd!

Stitchwhiz said...

Yup, you're right. I stand corrected. Don't know why I thought otherwise except maybe Willin' seems so like a Texas song. I've been listening to a lot of Steve Earle lately including the new Townes Van Zandt trbute CD. It's a real treat you may wanna give it a listen.