The Meaning of Little Feat’s “Willin'”

First written by Lowell George when he was still a member of Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention, Little Feat’s “Willin'” is considered to be one of the bands quintessential songs, and part of their origin story to boot. The version we all know and love appeared on Little Feat’s 1972 album Sailin’ Shoes, however the band also recorded a more upbeat, country-twang version for their self-titled debut album in 1971.

The story goes that when George brought the lyrics to Zappa for consideration, he was fired “cause I wrote a song about dope.” At least that’s how Lowell George worded it on stage with Little Feat in 1975, but it has later been considered more of a mutual departure, with “Willin'” being the catalyst for the birth of Little Feat.

Truth be told, Little Feat’s “Willin'” surely is about dope, among other things, and we’re glad that Lowell George left the Mothers of Invention, as legandary as Frank Zappa may be. Little Feat made some of the most funky, unique rock music of the 70s, with the degenerate truck driver’s anthem “Willin'” right up there among the best of them.

The lyrics to “Willin'” tell a tale of being screwed up on the road, with a life of hard times behind you and a woman named Alice waiting for you in Dallas. You’re chugging along the road, driving back roads to avoid weigh stations, sipping wine, ripping cigarettes and smoking weed all the way to your next destination.

“Willin'” contains one of the most memorable hooks in all of rock music, sung with such pride and glory that makes you want to befriend this lonely truck driver (and avoid him on the road at all costs):

And I’ve been from Tucson to Tucumcari
Tehachapi to Tonopah
Driven every kind of rig that’s ever been made
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’

Chorus to Little Feat’s “Willin'”.

The most famous lyric is, of course the line about “weed, whites, and wine.” It’s clear that this driver needs his weed and his wine to get by, but what about his whites? With this line, George is referring either to cigarettes or amphetamines, or more likely both.

Lowell George spoke with ZigZag magazine in 1975 about how he came up with the lyrics to “Willin'”:

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.

Lowell George on the origins of “Willin’,” 1975.

Both amphetamines and cigarettes are popular among truck drivers for their stimulant properties, which helps them stay awake through the night. Something tells me the truck driver from “Willin'” is not one to shy away from overindulgence.

As for the locations he’s singing about, he’s referring to a drive from Tuscon, Arizona to Tucumcari, New Mexico. From Tehachapi, California to Tonopah, Nevada. These exact locations are not quite so important, other than the fact that they rhyme. The idea here is that this truck driver has been around the block a few times, and he knows what he needs to get by.

While Little Feat are not seen as huge stars by the standards of the 1970s, they nestled themselves into a niche adjacent to the jam scene where they found themselves a comfortable home. Lowell George even produced the Grateful Dead’s 1978 album Shakedown Street.

Lowell George sadly passed away due to a cocaine overdose in 1979, but Little Feat are today considered one of the most influential bands of the 1970s, with their music being covered by Phish, The Black Krowes, Garth Brooks, and many more.

Listen to the iconic “Willin'” by Little Feat below.

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2 thoughts on “The Meaning of Little Feat’s “Willin'”

  • July 6, 2022 at 6:59 pm

    This song, with Linda Ronstadt, was a FAVORITE. Her wonderful clear voice.
    I miss it.

    Reply
    • August 18, 2022 at 11:20 pm

      God, yes! I think her version was the first one I ever heard of Willin and it just speaks to me somehow!

      Reply

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