Little Feat guitarist/singer Lowell George wrote "Willin'" before the group was even formed. The song is about a truck driver in the American southwest who makes some extra cash smuggling cigarettes and transporting illegals across the border from Mexico. If you give him "weed, whites and wine," he's willin' to do the job.
This originally appeared on Little Feat's debut album, but the version that has become famous was recorded for the follow-up, Sailin' Shoes, in 1972. The original version has a faster tempo.
Lowell George and Ry Cooder do some dueling slide guitar on this track. George had injured his left and in a run-in with a model airplane, so he was bandaged up, and according to Little Feat keyboard player Bill Payne, bleeding all over his guitar when he played. Cooder was working on his first album in the same studio where Little Feat was recording theirs: Western Recorders in Los Angeles, so Feat's producer Russ Titelman asked him to come bay and play on some tracks. There was a lot of tension between Cooder and George, but that competitive fire channeled into the song.
The opening line, in which the narrator describes himself as being "warped by the rain," originated in a conversation between George and drummer Richie Hayward. Hayward had used it to describe a rocking chair.
It's likely that when George brought "Willin song was a reason for his departure, due to its drug references in the chorus. It is known that his leaving had something to do with his drug use, which Zappa heavily frowned upon. "I think Frank was both impressed and put off by the song because of the drug reference," Bill Payne told Bud Scoppa. "He was somewhat conservative on certain levels. He was afraid of the very thing that bit the hippie movement in the ass, which was the craziness of what would happen to people when they got fried on drugs - like Charles Manson."
More likely, it was George's drug use that led to the parting.
Although the band never had a charting single, "Willin'" is arguably their best-known song. Their first two albums, which both included the track, flopped, but they found their stride with their third, Dixie Chicken, their first as a six-piece jazz-funk outfit (they were previously a country-rock quartet). They developed a reputation as a great live band, and "Willin'" was a concert favorite. As more people discovered the band, the song grew in popularity and even earned some airplay.
Little Feat split up in 1979 just months before Lowell George passed away. When they re-formed in 1987, guitarist Paul Barrere took the lead vocals on "Willin'." He died in 2019.
Linda Ronstadt recorded this on her 1975 album Heart Like A Wheel. While Ronstadt is certainly versatile, it's hard to imagine her at the wheel of a rig hauling freight (or contraband) across state lines.