Instead of focusing on a full album this week, I wanted to keep it short and talk about a favourite song. This week, that song is “Willin’” by the rollicking Southern rock band Little Feat.
Little Feat was formed in 1969 by Lowell George, who was then a member of Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention. There are three conflicting stories as to why George left the Mothers of Invention, per Wikipedia. In one of them, he shows Zappa “Willin’” and Zappa is so enthralled that he fires George so that he can start his own band. In another, the straight-edged Zappa is so scandalized by the references to alcohol and drugs in the song that he requests George leave the Mothers of Invention. And in the last, most absurd (and most scantily referenced) version, George plays a 15 minute electric guitar solo without his amp plugged in, somehow bothering Zappa so much he fires George from the band.
Whichever pieces from those stories are true, Lowell George left Zappa’s band in 1969 armed with “Willin’” (note: the version of the song I’m talking about here is the 1972 version from the album Sailing Shoes, not the one they recorded for their debut). I’ve always loved the Southern rock sound: the boogie shuffles, the guitar work, the way the music is always pushing forward like it’s running down a hill, and Little Feat is surely a Southern Rock band and a damn good one at that. But while “Willin’” takes a lot of cues from Southern rock, from its lyrical themes of the road and drifting to its excellent blues piano work, the song has always felt somewhat removed from other Southern rock ballads, and much greater than the sum of its two minute and fifty-five second runtime.
Now, I’m certainly not the only person to fall in love with “Willin’.” The song has become a standard of sorts for any band or artist adjacent to Southern rock. It’s been covered by the Byrds and by Gregg Allman and the by Black Crowes, and sometimes by Bob Dylan and Phish during their live shows. It’s been covered by Mandy Moore for the NBC prime-time drama This Is Us. It’s been covered most famously by Linda Ronstadt, a collaborator of Little Feat (see: “All That You Dream”), who performed a version on her 1980 album Heart Like A Wheel. As an aside, Ronstadt’s version of the song does one of my favourite little cover-song tricks in not changing any of the song’s pronouns even though the gender of the singer is different, which always scans as a more true interpretation of the song to me, for whatever reason (I like to imagine that “Dancing on My Own” would be a stalwart on my setlist if I had an ounce of musical talent). In any case, “Willin’” may not be a standard in the public consciousness, but it’s nearly essential listening for many prominent Southern bands and artists.
As mentioned above, “Willin’” draws its inspiration from the same well as so many other great pieces of American art: the road. The endless highways of America are a stand-in for unfettered expectations and emotional gulfs and the uninhibited promise of something new and unseen. “Willin’” is a simple story, about a trucker who travels around the country transporting goods both legal and illegal and receiving payment both above and below-board, but the song gets its emotional heft from a strange place: geography.
Right from the start, geographic specificity roots us in place: “I seen my pretty Alice in every headlight, Alice, Dallas Alice.” We may not know where the narrator is, but we know where he isn’t, and that displacement what drives the remainder of the story. And then, suddenly, with the greatest rattling of place names this side of “I’ve Been Everywhere,” we’re transported right to the passenger seat of the transport truck as its driver travels “from Tucson to Tucumcari, Tehachapi to Tonopah / driven every kind of rig that’s ever been made.” He’s transporting “smokes and folks from Mexico” and is willing to be paid in “weed, whites, and wine.” He’s, in a bit of deep-cut trucker information, “driven the backroads so I wouldn’t get weighed.” “Willin’” is a great little trucker novella right down to the epilogue: “I been kicked by the wind, robbed by the sleet / had my head stoved in but I’m still on my feet.”
“Willin’” is a song about the tribulations of the road, but also the road’s endless possibilities — places to go, people to meet, substances to consume. It’s a simple song, for sure, both lyrically and musically, but is able to sound melancholy and joyous and unencumbered because of that simplicity, not in spite of it. Touching briefly on the music, “Willin’” is anchored by a shuffling drum beat and a gently strummed acoustic guitar, but the real star of the show is the piano. Here, it takes on the role of almost a second singer, propelling the song forward when the narrator takes a period of respite. It’s rambling in a way many great rock piano parts are, and provides another kinetic object assisting us on our whirlwind tour of the country.
“Willin’” has taken a strange path to the cultural relevance it has today, but seems to be only growing in popularity (I base this mostly on the fact that it was featured on This Is Us). This makes sense, on some level, because “Willin’” is a strange song about a difficult and niche industry that’s mostly hidden from our everyday lives. On the other hand, though, “Willin’” is so immediate to me that I struggle to understand why it’s not as big as something like “Sweet Home Alabama” or “Jessica,” two other great Southern Rock classics. It may never truly get the recognition I feel it deserves, especially from those who are outside the genre niche, but maybe it’s best that way – like a trucker rolling into their twentieth town in a week, “Willin’” will continue its winding journey through the collective conscious, creating memories and stories wherever it goes.