Hot Club of Cowtown: ‘So Out of Style That We’ve Remained In Style’
Elana James was a broke intern at Harper’s magazine in New York City when she placed the ad in the Village Voice music section, hoping to join a band.
“I missed playing Western music so I put this ad in that wrongly stated that I could play all these different styles of fiddle music,” James says by telephone while traveling in Michigan. “I knew that I could if I became educated in those styles, but at the time I couldn’t.”
Luckily, Whit Smith replied.
“I also said in the ad that I was only interested in hearing from people with working bands,” James says. “Whit didn’t actually have a working band. So in some ways by misrepresenting both of ourselves we were able to find one another. … Honesty is overrated.”
It’s now been 18 years since fiddle player James and guitarist Smith formed Hot Club of Cowtown, and 15 years since they moved to Austin, Texas, where bass player Jake Erwin rounded out the trio, which has carved out a cult following for its blend of music inspired by guitarist Django Reinhardt and violinist Stephane Grappelli’s Hot Club of France, and the American western swing of Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys.
“We play what might be popular in dance halls in the American Southwest in the 1930s and ’40s,” James says. “We play early western swing, which is a super American style of music that was very popular before World War II. It’s a culmination of fiddle tunes, gypsy tunes, our own songs written in that style. We’re so out of style that we’ve somehow remained in style.”
The band’s latest album, 2013’s Rendezvous in Rhythm, is their first-ever project dedicated exclusively to gypsy jazz and French swing. The 14-song collection features spins on standards such as Al Jolson’s “Avalon,” Fred Loesser’s “Slow Boat to China,” “Back in Your Own Backyard,” a classic made famous by Billie Holliday, and “The Continental,” a Reinhardt and Grappelli showpiece intricately rearranged by Smith. The album also serves as a companion piece to 2011’s What Makes Bob Holler, a collection of western swing standards.
“I often relate what we do to food,” James says. “The baguette has been around in France for 200 years, and they keep making the baguette. So if someone makes a baguette are they considered a retro baker? No. They are creating a delicious item that people will eat in perpetuity. I think that’s the approach we take with this stuff. A lot of these songs are classic songs, and just because maybe they were first created in 1927, you play them in 2015 and they are equally vibrant and relevant and emotionally present for anybody.”
James, who grew up in Prairie Village, KS, began playing violin at age 4. Her mother also is a professional violinist who played in the Kansas City Symphony.
“She’d have friends over all the time when I was growing up to play chamber music,” James says. “There would be these string quartets playing Beethoven in the living room. They’d be drinking red wine, and we would be under the piano listening and running around. It was a fairly bohemian way to grow up.”
James discovered fiddle music in high school, but it wasn’t until after studying violin and viola at the Manhattan School of Music that she decided her calling was in roots music.
“I loved that these fiddle tunes were so social and so American – all the things classical music isn’t,” she says. “After I graduated from college I was going to do whatever moved me, and my fiddle led me to those different styles. I love gypsy music. I love Eastern European traditional music. I love music made in real time acoustically. There’s something true about it that I’ve always been interested in it.”
In addition to her role in Hot Club of Cowtown, James also performs both as a solo artist and in other projects. In February she released Black Beauty, a collection of original and cover tunes from across the roots music genre, which is her first solo album in seven years. And in 2005, James joined Bob Dylan’s touring band, and was his opening act during the 2006 U.S. summer tour.
“It’s exactly how you imagine it would be,” James says of the experience. “You get up on stage every night, and you say, are you kidding me? I’m getting paid to do this? To do that day after day with him and those guys, it gave me a lot of confidence and inspiration to continue on with what I love.”
More recently, Hot Club of Cowtown has been working on some new arrangements as well as writing new original material for a planned 2016 album.
“You play enough of these tunes and you start to understand what the components are and you mix and match those structural ideas and sentiments and images,” James says of the band’s original music. “I don’t want to write a cowboy song that references airplanes. No one is writing songs about cellphones and email. There are things in this creative world that are timeless – nature, love, longing, humor – those are all things that make it into these songs.”
She adds that the band recently has been road testing some new material. As far as what audiences can expect? Well, James says it best.
“If you’ve seen us before we’ll have some songs you’ve never heard before,” she says, “and if you’ve never seen us before we’ll have a lot of songs you’ve never heard before.”
A version of this article originally appeared in The Herald-Palladium newspaper of Saint Joseph, MI.