The Chemistry and Magic of Hot Club of Cowtown
There is a special space that exists among musical kindred spirits. Within that space, a bond is formed. When this happens on a live stage, the audience becomes a part of the experience. As fiddle player for the Hot Club of Cowtown, Elana James recently said, “What the audience brings to the show is essential to what we’re doing.”
Since 1998, the Western swing-gypsy jazz trio Hot Club of Cowtown has traveled the world bringing their own brand of magical musical chemistry to audiences far and wide. Along with James, guitarist Whit Smith and bassist Jake Erwin are equal partners in this original marriage of gypsy-jazz-inspired by the music of Django Reinhardt — which accounts for the “Hot Club” portion of their name — with the hoedowns, traditional tunes, and Western swing-inspired music of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, represented in the “Cowtown” of their name. They have created a legacy of the preservation of musical traditions that have often been overlooked by the mainstream and alternative music worlds. Even Americana and roots enthusiasts have only scratched surface of the multitude of musicians, past and present, who continue to inspire the Hot Club of Cowtown.
“This music may be more prevalent now than fifteen years ago,” says James. “I don’t think as much of this was going on when we first got together–the seamless blending of Western swing tunes and hot jazz standards a la Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grapelli.” While the merging of gypsy jazz with Western swing sounds natural when listening to Hot Club of Cowtown, in the beginning the fusion of the two styles seemed more unorthodox than it does now. “We don’t really keep track of other groups who do what we do,” James explains. “We just have always listened to old recordings and get inspired by that endless trove of astonishing performances. Mixing these genres together has always just been such a natural fit. Over the years other ‘hot club’ bands have formed but I guess generally we may be the most visible touring Western swing power trio out there.”
The band has a long list of accomplishments since their first album, Swingin’ Stampede, first appeared in 1998 on HighTone records. Most notably, they are among the youngest members ever to have been inducted inot the Texas Western Swing Hall of Fame. A considerable accomplishment for a band that have migrated their way from New England and the Midwest by way of New York City. They have most recently been nominated for the second year in a row for the Ameripolitan Music Awards (a new genre created by Dale Watson to recognize roots-influenced bands) for Best Western Swing Group, and James has been nominated for Western Swing Female. The band has also represented the U.S. State Department as Musical Ambassadors over the past several years to places as diverse as Azerbaijan, Armenia, the Republic of Georgia, and the Sultanate of Oman. Their festival appearances have been as diverse as they’ve been numerous including jazz, bluegrass and country festivals throughout the UK, Europe, Japan, Australia and North America.
The Hot Club of Cowtown was born when Whit Smith, a reformed rock-and-roller living in New York City, started getting into Django Reinhardt and early Bob Wills recordings while working at Tower Records and playing in bands in the early 1990s. “As a guitar player, he was really getting into these guys I had never heard of–George Barnes, Tiny Moore, Thumbs Carllile, Hank Garland, Django Reinhardt, Oscar Aleman, Eddie Lang. Whit would make me these cassette recording of these guys in their various bands and I would listen to them religiously and couldn’t even tell the difference between country and jazzy guitar and rhythm in those tunes” says James. “It all blended together. Even the violin soloists–people like Stuff Smith, Joe Venuti, Johnny Gimble, Stephane Grappelli, Hugh and Karl Farr, Louis Tierney and Keith Coleman from the Bob Wills band–were hard for me to differentiate at first. They all sounded so inspired, romantic, squirrely, virtuosic. It didn’t matter if they were soloing over ‘Three Little Words’ or ‘Take Me Back to Tulsa,’ the solos and melodic ideas just killed me. And they eventually took over my life!”
Smith is a native New Englander who was born to folk music-loving parents. From childhood, he internalized a daily life of practicing and performing music. “My mom and dad used to sing and play folk music every night after my dad got home from work. Every weekend my dad would spend hours sitting in front of the record player figuring out rural tunes by Robert Johnson and Mississippi John Hurt,” Smith explains. “Then he was really big into Manitas De Plata and flamenco guitar.” While in his early 20s, Smith moved to New York City where, for 15 years, his music took shape and found a home in the foundation his father had built during his impressionable years.
During his early years in New York, Smith studied jazz guitar, a little classical piano, and the intricacies of vocal harmony and chordal voicings. It was his apprenticeship with guitarist Richard Lieberson that defined his own musical approach. Lieberson taught Smith traditional jazz forms along with traditional country guitar. Like his father’s way of absorbing folk and blues guitar patterns, Smith began from that early blueprint and applied the same discipline and imagination to the study of country and jazz guitar.
By 1994, Smith had begun applying his new-found knowledge to weekly shows in the city leading a revolving 13-piece Western swing orchestra called the Western Caravan. The group played hoedowns, country tunes, Western swing and jazz standards with fiddles and steel guitar. Around this time he answered an ad put in the music section of the Village Voice by Elana James, who was looking to join a band on the side as she was working in publishing in the city. When the two finally got together to play a unique partnership began.
Time went by and eventually first James and then Smith left New York City for points west. In 1997 they relocated to San Diego, found their first bass player, and began playing as at farmers markets, parks, and cafes for tips. After a year in San Diego they were inspired to move to Austin, where Western swing was part of the natural order of things, and a town where living as a musician was known to be possible and even desirable.
Different bass players came and went over the early years and on some of the band’s early recordings, but with the addition of upright bassist Jake Erwin in 2000, the trio had found its stride. The youngest member of the band, Erwin was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, very near to Cain’s Ballroom, the home of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. He was drawn to the bass instrument and roots music in general during childhood. He specializes in slap bass–a New Orleans jazz approach and is equal to the task of skillfully playing his instrument and contributing to the vocal textures of the trio.
Elana James was raised in Kansas. She started out as a Suziki-method Classical musician when she began playing violin at age four after hearing her mom playing violin around the house. “We all have our individual influences,” she says. “My background is Classical music, though I have always been interested in folk and traditional music. But when I first started playing roots music, I was surprised how many people considered this ‘retro.’ To me, Aaron Copeland was modern! I was used to Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, Brahms. It has taken me a long time to get used to that notion that these songs or this style is considered “old.” I guess you can consider it old in the same sense that a fine cheese from France is ‘old’ or the baguette is ‘old’ but you eat it every day! Is steak ‘retro’ because man has eaten it for millioins of years? For me great music is always contemporary. This idea that so many people thought of Bob Wills’s music as old music was weird. He and the sound of his band has always been more contemporary, more alive and inspired to me, than tons of stuff that is being recorded and right now.”
James’s violin was a natural instrument to connect her with Wills and his Texas Playboys. But, there was more in her background that would move her toward Western music. “I grew up riding horses and, later, working as a horse wrangler in Colorado. I grew up with this this kind of perfect background for this kind of music in a way: a Western influence of horses and riding and rural life and growing up in Kansas, but also this Classical background that gave me a little more chops or sophistication to be able to play a little more virtuosic stuff if I wanted to. Those are the things I like best about this whole style–that it is a perfect blend of rustic, social dance music but also can be very elegant and swinging. So the music was a natural fit. But, it was meeting Whit that brought this added to dimension to the music. He and I definitely shared this zeal and he’s the one who initially guided us into this specific direction of early Western swing and hot jazz.”
In 2004 the Hot Club of Cowtown gained a special fan in Bob Dylan when they were invited to open a month-long tour of minor leaue ballparks with Dylan and Willie Nelson. James sat in with Dylan’s band often on that tour and the following year James was hired to play briefly in Dylan’s touring band — the first dedicated female instrumentalist to join his road band since Scarlet Rivera some 30 years before. “I was nervous but it was fun,” she says. “I hadn’t been that familiar with his songs before joining his band so that was really a stretch for me. And again, coming from playing Western swing and Classical music….his songs were even MORE modern to me! Different kinds of forms, unique structures. Also, when you are working for someone else, it’s very different. I don’t just think of what I might play, but there’s that extra step that you try and think about, how is this song, this other person’s song, supposed to come off? What should I do or–more importantly not do–to have it come off successfully. That’s a lot to be thinking about, especially on a stage with seven people. Playing in a trio it’s practically impossible to over-play since you are always supporting the other two rhythmically, singing, or soloing. In a larger band, sitting out and playing only strategically is a better approach. Less is way more. That was new to me, a very good lesson.”
So, how does it feel to walk out and perform with one of the great artists of the last one hundred years? “Oh it’s extraordinary,” she says. “You don’t know how it’s going to feel when you walk out onstage to that audience. There is this energy that radiates toward the stage, like it lifts you up. The energy is unlike anything else. Also, his artistic choices on songs, improvisational ideas, how the arrangements change, how the band approached the music has influenced me for sure. It’s funny, even in that environment on stage you could still hear some bossy voices calling out from the audience their pointed requests and it’s like, really? Aren’t you not just thanking your lucky stars to even be here absorbing this epic person sing whatever he feels like for you? People can be so weird.”
Hot Club has maintained an on-again, off-again relationship over the years, which appears to be more about career choices than personal differences. When asked about the brief times the band has not beein touring or recording, James says, “It’s like Brokeback Mountain — ‘I just can’t quit you!’” she laughs. “Some bands are maybe more studio bands, or other bands are really more about songwriting. We came together as instrumentalists who love to jam and play, and we really are at our very best as a live band. To me it’s as almost as though the instruments have gathered us together to sing and play their music. Like the songs conjure us and we gather together and deliver them.”
Indeed, when seeing the trio perform, hearing them on studio or live records, there is a sense of something beyond them individually–and beyond their years–taking over through this music that has lasted through the years. “At the end of the day, it’s fun to get up on stage when you’re with your A game,” James says. “If you don’t have a great show, great people up on stage together who you believe in, it’s hard to get up on stage. To do this thing we are truly thrilled by, as a band together, this is what makes us go. That there is a demand for us, for this little Western swing trio, to continue to tour, play, record, travel, it truly is like a miracle. We’ve been together a long time and continue to share something unique and mysterious that continues to develop and grow over the years. As the saying goes, the harder you work, the luckier you get. For me it’s like this magical tree that we nurture and feed and in return it gives us shade, fruit and joy over the years.”
The trio is currently on tour with dates Austin, Texas at the Contintental Club on 1/21 and at the Neighborhood Theater in Charolotte, North Carolina and The Grey Eagle in Ashville, North Carolina on January 22 and 23 respectively. Elana James will be releasing a new solo album, Black Beauty, on February 24.