Wikipedia isn’t always the most reliable source of information, but the Little Feat Wikipedia page quite accurately describes the band’s sound as “an eclectic blend of rock and roll, blues, R&B, boogie, country, folk, gospel, soul, funk and jazz fusion influences.” In other words, there was very little that wasn’t incorporated into the Little Feat palette. Musicians in the 1970s admired Little Feat as a tight, innovative band that managed to put its own stamp on its songs, while making the genres they drew from seem even better than they were. The general public, well, not always so much.
The best-known song from this band is probably “Willin’,” written by the late Little Feat founder Lowell George. “Willin’” is the tale of a truck driver who basically does whatever he needs to get by (I smuggled some smokes and folks from Mexico), while maybe sometimes driving under the influence (I’m drunk and dirty, don’t ya know). It was recorded twice by the band, on their eponymous 1971 debut album (with Ry Cooder on slide) and again on their 1973 album Sailin’ Shoes, in a version most people prefer, with a mostly spoken-word first verse by George.
“Willin’” is known for George’s unusual use of verbs in contexts that somehow make sense, with lines like I been warped by the rain, driven by the snow and Had my head stoved in, but I’m still on my feet. But what made it a classic was what is now one of rock’s (or country-rock’s) iconic choruses:
And I been from Tucson to Tucumcari
Tehachapi to Tonapah
I’ve driven every kind of rig that’s ever been made
I’ve driven the back roads so I wouldn’t get weighed
And if you give me: weed, whites, and wine
And you show me a sign I’ll be willin’ to be movin’
As with most classic songs, there were a lot of different recollections of various people over the years of how “Willin’” was written. Lowell George himself had varying explanations, including one he recounted in the mid-1970s to editor Paul Kendall of the long-defunct British magazine Zigzag. “I remember that I wrote it at [Little Feat drummer] Richie [Hayward’s] house, where a guy was talking about the ‘three wicked W’s,’ which were weed, whites, and wine, and I went, ‘Oh, that’s it.’ Then Richie’s sister-in-law walked into the room and said, ‘Oh, look at that chair: it’s been warped by the rain,’ and I thought, ‘I’d better start making some notes here.’ So I scribbled various things down and bashed it into shape, and it all seemed to come together with a tune I’d written the previous day … some music without words that I’d started. The song just happened … and I feel that those songs … are subsequently the ones which have been the most successful … in terms of a song having substance and quality.”
Linda Ronstadt’s version of “Willin’” may be the best-known version of the song, simply because Ronstadt was a radio staple while Little Feat didn’t see much radio play. It’s also been covered by Gregg Allman, Steve Earle and others, and today it’s probably Lowell George’s best-known composition. The song also speaks to how fortunate we are today to have more stringent drug and alcohol-testing requirements for semi drivers.