All these years later, Elana James wonders about the efficacy of naming their trio The Hot Club of Cowtown. The idea was that it combined the wild and wooly jazz of the 1920s, exemplified by the Paris nightspot favored by fiddler Stephane Grappelli and guitarist Django Reinhardt, with the Western swing popularized by Bob Wills.
All these years later, Elana James wonders about the efficacy of naming their trio The Hot Club of Cowtown.
The idea was that it combined the wild and wooly jazz of the 1920s, exemplified by the Paris nightspot favored by fiddler Stephane Grappelli and guitarist Django Reinhardt, with the Western swing popularized by Bob Wills.
“I’m not sure I’d still include ‘Cowtown’ in the band’s name,” James said. “That’s the part that scares people away, like they expect some sort of boot-scootin’ thing that is neither cool nor hip. The reality is that our band is so much broader than that.”
James plays fiddle and sings, and her cohorts are guitarist/vocalist Whit Smith and standup slap-bassist Jake Erwin. Whether they are playing events or festivals, Hot Club of Cowtown always surprises music fans. The trio doesn’t even fit neatly into the very wide and multi-genre-encompassing Americana category.
“Americana is obviously a fast-growing realm and is still not exactly defined,” James said. “I suppose it’s an achievement that we’re still able to perform this music publicly at all. But we’re all steeped in that ‘hot style’ of ‘30s and ‘40s playing, and we’re all oriented to that musical vernacular, even in the originals we write.”
People may have the impression Hot Club is a West Coast band, since they have been based in San Diego, Calif., when not in their usual haunts of Austin, Texas. But the funny thing is that they really have an East Coast origin. Smith is a native of Wellfleet, Mass. The idea for ‘Cowtown’ actually began with an ad James placed in the town’s local Village Voice while living in New York City and working as an intern at Harper’s Magazine 17 years ago.
“We have about eight hometowns,” James, a Kansas native, said. “I had been in a band while living in Colorado and missed playing when I came to New York. I lied a bit in my ad, declaring myself proficient in about nine different styles of music, from folk to country to jazz. Whit, who’d played in rock bands on Cape Cod, Mass., during his formative years, was in the process of forming a Western swing band when he saw my ad. It took me a couple weeks before I actually went to meet this weird guy … but when we sat down and played together, I felt such immediate musical chemistry. A little while later, we found Jake Erwin and had an incredibly simpatico trio.”
Hot Club of Cowtown’s 1998 debut album, “Swinging Stampede,” won them instant fans all over the country, and they became cult favorites. Subsequent albums like the ‘99 “tall tales,” and 2002’s “Ghost Train” solidified a nice formula of combining covers of classic tunes from those bygone days with their own lively originals.
But by 2005, the trio was a bit burned out, and they took a break. James played with Bob Dylan’s band for a while, and then opened Dylan’s 2005 summer tour with her own group. By the end of 2006, however, the trio was reunited.
“We had played something in excess of 240 shows the year before that 2005 hiatus,” James said. “Just band dynamics, and the typical stresses told us we needed a hiatus.”
The latest Hot Club of Cowtown album is the new “What Makes Bob Holler,” a collection of Bob Wills covers. While the threesome has never done an album entirely of covers in this country before, it is not without precedent.
“Due to our dual personality, musically speaking, the label we’re on in Japan has released two CDs at a time,” James explained. “They release one that’s all Western swing, and another that’s all jazzy stuff. We got to thinking that’s a good idea. This was one of the easiest albums we ever recorded, and we did it in just two days. Of course, our typical recording budget is equivalent to most rock bands’ catering bill for a day, so working quickly and efficiently comes naturally to us.”
The new CD includes not just the tunes that made Wills a household name in the ‘30s and ‘40s, but also some delectable obscurities, like “The Devil Ain’t Lazy,” and the jazzy “Osage Stomp.”
“Many of these tunes are ones we had been performing for years, but had never recorded,” James said. “They were all songs we loved ... Now, I think our next album will probably be comprised of all eccentric originals, because we’ve got a bunch of those that have never been recorded too.”