Hot Club Of Cowtown – Taking Wills their own way
The rapid rise in the Austin music scene of the Hot Club Of Cowtown is a testament both to a talented band and to the supportive atmosphere among musicians in the city that likes to call itself the Live Music Capital Of The World.
The band’s story really begins in the early 1990s in New York City, where guitarist Whit Smith was in the process of forming an eleven-piece swing band called Western Caravan. He spotted an ad in the Village Voice placed by fiddle player Elana Fremerman, who quickly became a major part of the group. Western Caravan went on to a long-running Monday night residency at New York’s Rodeo Bar, but such a large group was not capable of recording or touring.
Fremerman, slightly frustrated, left for Colorado, and Smith soon followed. Together they moved on to San Diego. “It was warm and cheap and nice there,” Smith recalls of California, “and we kinda got waylaid. We would play as a duo in Balboa Park for tips and we would meet people from all over the world.”
At one point during their California stay, Smith was in Los Angeles at the same time as Billy Horton of Austin’s Horton Brothers, visiting with a mutual friend, Dave Stuckey of the Dave & Deke Combo. “Billy and I struck up a friendship,” Smith relates, “and he said that when we came to Austin to look him up. Well, we did — we showed up at his doorstep with all our stuff saying, ‘Here we are.'” Horton eventually began playing bass with the duo, and the Hot Club Of Cowtown was born.
“It was great when we came to Austin,” Smith continued. “I was also friends with Sean Mencher of High Noon [a longtime fixture in the city’s rockabilly scene]. He had given me quite a list of people to contact when we got there. So there was a whole bunch of people who were super friendly and helpful to us right away.”
A band can only go so far on friendship and good will, though. The Hot Club Of Cowtown’s bold combination of brilliant musicianship along with an adventurous repertoire — combining western swing, hot jazz in the style of Stephane Grappelli and Django Reinhardt, traditional fiddle tunes and Tin Pan Alley standards — has easily won over audiences, not just in Austin and Texas, but all over the western part of the United States.
Their appearance at this year’s South By Southwest music conference led to a deal with HighTone Records, which issued the band’s debut disc, Swingin’ Stampede, on Sept. 1. Further exhibiting the harmony among Austin musicians, the band was fortunate enough to get legendary fiddler Johnny Gimble, probably best known for his work with Bob Wills & the Texas Playboys, to join them on four songs. “After we got to play with him, we were floating,” Smith says with a chuckle. “We asked him to produce the record, but he preferred just to play.”
Smith admits that a love of the music of Wills is a jumping-off point for the band; in fact, they cover three Wills tunes on Swingin’ Stampede. However, there is a lot more going on within the band’s interplay, a fresh spirit that lends their sound a modern dynamic. “What I love about western swing,” Smith explains, “and the earlier kind of jazz from the ’20s and ’30s, is that it has a specific kind of driving rhythm. It has a melody that’s understandable and a form that is relatively straightforward. Then you can do anything you want, as far as soloing goes or arranging. So it leaves a whole lot of room for improvising and creating your own style, yet it has a very simple structure.”
Although currently on their first full tour of the country, Smith is already chomping at the bit to make another record. “We did a pretty good job of covering the styles we like to mix on this record,” he says. “But we’d like to record some of our own songs, do more arranging of some other tunes and give the next one more of a live sound. We tried to record live, but there was a mix of technology and ideas that didn’t quite gel. We’ll have a better hand on things with the next one.”