Possibly the ultimate trucking song, with its always memorable chorus:
“And I’ve been from Tucson to Tucumcari, Tehachapi to Tonopah
Driven every kind of rig that’s ever been made
Driven the backroads so I wouldn’t get weighed
And if you give me weed, whites and wine
And you show me a sign
And I’ll be willin’ to be movin'”
‘Willin’’ was written by Lowell George while he was a member of Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention. There’s some controversy around the song; George maintained that Zappa, who had a strict no drugs policy for the group, sacked him for writing a song with obvious drug references. Zappa has always said that he knew George needed to get out and form his own band and the song was an excuse to encourage him to do so. Whatever the truth of the matter is, Lowell George left the Mothers in 1969, about a year after he joined, and by 1971 the song was on the self-titled debut album of George’s band, Little Feat. It also appeared on their second album, ‘Sailin’ Shoes’, in a slightly slower tempo and this is when the track really started to attract attention. It’s not that unusual for a band to revisit older material but I can’t think of many/any bands that have released a track on one album only to re-record it for the next one! We’re going to feature both Little Feat tracks as well as three others, since the Little Feat versions are really numbers 1 and 1.2!
Little Feat (1971 & 1972)
The original recorded version appeared on Little Feat’s eponymous debut album. Personnel are Lowell George on lead vocal and guitar, Bill Payne on keyboards, Roy Estrada on bass and Richard Hayward on drums – and there’s a special guest appearance, on bottleneck guitar, by some bloke called Ry Cooder; wonder what happened to him?!
The tempo of the song is quite a bit faster than most will be used to and it’s known that George wasn’t really happy with this and with producer Russ Titelman’s approach to the album.
Here we have version 1.2, the version that will be more familiar to more people. This is from the ‘Sailin’ Shoes’ album but the tempo is slower, the producer is now Ted Templeman and, while the band personnel are the same, Ry Cooder’s bottleneck playing has been replaced by the pedal steel of ‘Sneaky’ Pete Kleinow. It’s an altogether more confident, swaggering performance, with that slip and slide that the band would become so well known for. You can see why they decided to re-record it for the second album, a decision that would pay off in many ways. This was the way they would play it from this point on, as this live version shows.
Linda Ronstadt (1974)
Here’s one of the payoffs from Little Feat’s decision to re-record the song. It was that second recording that made Linda Ronstadt decide to cover the song for her ‘Heart Like A Wheel’ album. This was Ronstadt’s first number 1 album and is widely considered to be her big breakthrough recording. It would spend 51 weeks on the charts and earn her four nominations at the 1976 Grammy Awards (she would win one of those, for Best Country Vocal Performance, Female). Lowell George was known to have liked Ronstadt’s version (and why wouldn’t he, given the royalties it earned him), though he felt her full-throated delivery of the line “weed, whites and wine”, was a little over emphasised – “Linda Ronstadt’s version of ‘Willin’’ is pretty good, except she gets a little bit ‘WuhEEED, WuhHITES, AND WuhIIIIINE!’ Linda was a little bit too on.” (Lowell George in an interview with American writer Bill Flanagan, 1979)
Whatever he might have thought, ‘Willin’’ would become one of Ronstadt’s signature songs and one that fans would demand to hear at her stadium concerts for years to come.
Steve Earle (2002)
This version from Steve Earle, is taken from his 2002 ‘Side Tracks’ album, a compilation album meant to clear out odd tracks and demos that he didn’t want to simply discard. He explained at the time that, “With the exception of two instrumentals (originally intended for ‘Transcendental Blues’), these are not outtakes. They are, rather, stray tracks that I am very proud of and that are either unreleased or underexposed”. The album is good, though it lacks focus, as you would expect from a fairly random compilation like this. ‘Willin’’ is one of a number of covers on the album and it seems that it may have been recorded simply because Earle liked the song and wanted to do a version of it – which is a pretty good reason, when you think about it.
What we get is a sort of outlaw country/bluegrass crossover version that works surprisingly well. Consulting the track notes in my own copy of ‘Sidetracks’ it says that it was “recorded with The Bluegrass Dukes on the Transcendental sessions”, largely because “I love to sing with Tim and Darrell”. The Bluegrass Dukes were Darrell Scott on Banjo, Dennis Crouch on upright bass, Casey Driesson on fiddle and the incomparable Tim O’Brien on mandolin, which you can pretty much spot as soon as the mandolin comes in.
Greg Allman (2017)
For the final version, I’m going to one of the most recent covers and Greg Allman’s superb interpretation from his posthumously released final album, ‘Southern Blood’. The album was recorded in March 2016, when he already seemed to be losing his battle with liver cancer, and was released in September of the following year, four months after his death. The album had, originally, been planned as an album of all original compositions, but Allman’s fading health had made that impossible. Instead, he focused on songs that meant something to him, with ‘Willin’’ referencing the years he spent on the road, as his tours criss-crossed America and beyond. His version has an almost restrained gospel feel about it and is one of the most emotional readings of this song I’ve heard. Musically, it’s superb, with the piano work of long-time band member, Peter Levin, well to the fore and with some sublime pedal steel from Greg Leisz, but it’s Allman’s vocal that steals the show. We’ve saved the best for last.