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 that unique experience. As fiddle player for 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, they are all equal partners in the original marriage of Gypsy Jazz inspired by the music of Django Reinhardt, which accounts for the Hot Club portion of their name, with the Texas-inspired country swing music of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, who is represented in the Cowtown of their name. Hot Club of Cowtown has created a legacy of the preservation of musical traditions that have been easily overlooked by the mainstream and alternative music world. Even Americana and roots enthusiasts have only scratched surface on the multitude of musicians, past and present, which Hot Club of Cowtown represent.
In recent interview with Elana James said, “This music is more prevalent now than 15 years ago. I don’t think much of this was going on when we first got together.” While the merging of gypsy jazz with western swing sounds natural when listening to Hot Club of Cowtown, they were the first to try the fusion of the two styles. “I never keep track of other groups who do what we do. We just listen to old recordings and focus on what we’re creating. It was such a natural fit. Over the years other hot club bands have formed. We were the first to make it international.” She explained.
The band has a long list of accomplishments since their first album, Swinging Stamped, first appeared in 1998. Most notably, they are among the youngest members of the Texas Western Swing Hall of Fame. A considerable accomplishment for a band that have migrated their way from New England, the Midwest, and New York City. They have most recently been nominated for Ameripolitan Music Awards in Austin for Best Western Swing Group. They were also appointed by the U.S. State Department as musical ambassadors to Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia. Their festival appearances have been as diverse as they’ve been numerous over the years participating in jazz, bluegrass and country festivals internationally
The band had its genesis when Whit Smith, a reformed rock ‘n’ roller living in New York City, started getting into Django Reinhardt and early Bob Wills. “As a guitar player, he would listen and couldn’t tell the difference between country and jazzy guitar and rhythm of 1920s’ music. It all blended together.”
Guitarist Whit 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 would move to New York City where, for 15 years, his music would take shape and find a home in the foundation his father had built during his impressionable years.
During his early years in New York City, Smith studied modern jazz guitar, 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 classic country guitar. Like his father’s way of absorbing folk and blues guitar patterns, Smith began from that early blue print and applied the same discipline and imagination to the study of country and jazz guitar.
By 1994, Smith made use of his new found knowledge with weekly shows in the city, a revolving 13-piece eestern dwing orchestra called the Western Caravan. The group played hoedowns, country western, and jazz with fiddles and steel guitar. Answering an ad put into the music section of the Village Voice by Elana James, the two musicians met and a unique partnership began.
With the addition of upright bassist Jake Erwin, the triad of magic was complete. The youngest member of the band, he 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 at during childhood. He specializes in slap bass, a New Orleans jazz approach. He 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; a classical musician, she began playing violin at four years of age. “We all have our individual influences. My background is classical music. When I first started playing roots music, to me, Aaron Copeland was modern. While everybody thought Bob Wills was old music, he was more contemporary to me. I didn’t understand this was retro.” However, her 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 working as a horse wrangler. I grew with this western influence, so the music was a natural fit.” She explained. “But, it was meeting Whit that brought this added to dimension to the music. He had this zeal and guided us into the zone with Bob Wills and Django’s music.”
In her mid-twenties James saw the light of how a violin can be used to create fiddle variations in American roots music. It’s become her first love. She chose the “fiddle” over the “violin.” Although, hearing her play in a variety of genres, both styles bleed through into many of her performances. Her strongest distinction is the way her fiddle unifies and centers the music the band creates, be it French Swing, early Texas country, Gypsy jazz, or American songbook standards.
In 2004, Hot Club of Cowtown gained a special fan in Bob Dylan. The band was invited on a tour with the legendary star. The following year, Elana James was hired in Dylan’s band, the first female instrumentalist to join him on stage since Scarlett Rivera some 30 years before. On performing with Dylan, James said, “I was so nervous but it was really fun. I began to wonder which was going to win out, being nervous or having fun. The fun won! Bob’ a great person. You experience people differently when you’ve known them musically, especially on the road. I learned so much from him.” When asked if Dylan was accessible to her during the tour she answer affirmatively. “He was really nice. The entire band, too. I’ve always craved mentors and the wisdom of people who have been out there doing it.” So, how does it feel to walk out and perform with one of the great artists of the last one hundred years? “It was an extraordinary thing. You don’t know how it’s going to feel when you walk out onstage with him. There is this energy that radiates toward the stage from the audience. The energy is unique. Also, seeing his artistic choices on songs and how he approached music has influenced me deeply.”
The band has had an on again, off-again relationship over the years, which appears to be more about career choices than any personal differences. When asked about the down times with the band, Alana James laughed, “It’s like in Broke Back Mountain!” She said, “I just can’t quit you!! Some bands are studio bands. We are primarily a live band. It’s as though the instruments have gathered us together to play the music. It seems to conjure us and we gather together and give it what it wants.” Indeed, when seeing the trio perform, hearing them on studio or live records, there is a sense of something beyond them, 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 game. If you don’t have a great show, 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.” Alana said. “Having the demand for this Western Swing Trio is a miracle from God. We’ve stabilized over the years and this is something shared in that is like this tree for us that has given us shade and fruit over the years.”
On Saturday, January 16th, Hot Club of Cowtown will make a rare appearance at Acoustic Music San Diego, the standing series that in the past has hosted legendary roots artists like Dave Alvin, Tom Russell, Ian Tyson, Janis Ian, and Jimmie Dale Gilmore. This will be the trio’s first appearance at the series allowing jazz, country, and Americana enthusiasts the opportunity to experience the special chemistry of this groundbreaking, genre-busting trio. At Sweetwater Union High School Performing Arts Center, 2900 Highland Ave., National City, 7:30pm.