Hot Club of Cowtown - in the swing
The Americans and British are often described as being two peoples divided by a common language, and that’s nowhere more true than in the music business. When Americans talk about festivals, they tend to think big. So for Elana James, violinist and singer with Hot Club of Cowtown, to see the group’s appearance at the upcoming Glasgow Americana celebration as a chance to play to – and hopefully woo - an audience that might have come to hear someone else should be viewed as business acumen rather than opportunism.
Compared to the massively attended, multi-venued events at which Hot Club of Cowtown are used to appearing, Glasgow Americana, carefully nurtured and grown by Kevin Morris of Fallen Angels Club promotions as a continuation of the late Billy Kelly’s invaluable contribution to the Scottish music scene, is a more intimate event with one concert every night for eight nights. The artists Morris has booked for his third and most ambitious programme to date, from the festival’s opener on May 16, rootsy singer-songwriter Rachel Harrington, to later arrivals, Canadian gospel-jazz-country-blues all-rounders Po’ Girl and Californian traditionalists the Stairwell Sisters, will therefore have to find their own audience.
James’ ambition isn’t misplaced either. With their high energy, highly accomplished blend of Western Swing, Great American Songbook standards, gypsy spirit and contemporary songwriting, Hot Club of Cowtown sound exactly like the sort of band that would lure passers-by into their tent.
The band’s origins are as everyday as their music is sophisticated. A classically trained violinist from Kansas whose musical career had stalled and diverted her into a job with a New York publisher in the early 1990s, James decided to advertise in the Village Voice for a working band. This could have been, she readily concedes, any working band. Her advertisement listed all manner of musical styles in which she claimed specialised knowledge and out of the many replies she received, the one from guitarist Whit Smith proved most promising.
Smith, it turned out, didn’t actually have a working band (thus James’s exaggerations were diplomatically overlooked). But he soon would – an eleven piece that, led by himself and James, took on a two-year residency at the aptly named Rodeo Bar in Manhattan.
“The first time Whit and I got together there was a musical chemistry between us that I’d never felt before,” says James. “I’d pretended to be conversant with bluegrass, country, all sorts of stuff. But really my background was classical and violinists like Stephane Grappelli, Stuff Smith, Joe Venuti from the jazz side and Johnny Gimbell from Western Swing, although in classical music I was always drawn to things like Bartok and Brahms’ Hungarian dances – the gypsy element. Whit was – and is – really versatile and knew lots of songs and we just played and played and played. It felt natural straightaway.”
After two years in the Rodeo Bar, James decided to move up a level and got a job with a touring country band. Smith pursued her and they fetched up in San Diego, where the Hot Club of Cowtown manifesto really came together, before heading for the Texan music capital, Austin.
Working through a series of bass players, they established themselves as a trio and were enjoying reasonable local and national success until, in 2004, Smith decided that ten years had been long enough and he didn’t want to continue. It was a decision that, paradoxically, energised first James and then Hot Club of Cowtown’s careers. After spending three months soul searching and wondering where to go next, James got her answer from an unexpected source: Bob Dylan had got to hear one of Hot Club of Cowtown’s CDs and wanted their violinist in his band.
“That was a real gift, a complete education,” says James, who admits to not having been entirely familiar with Dylan’s catalogue beforehand. “The thing about Bob rearranging his classic songs every night didn’t trouble me because I didn’t necessarily know the originals and with Hot Club, we were used to improvising 80-90% of the show. Once we stated the basic theme, we’d be off to wherever the music took us. But with Bob, I really had to up my game. Performing at such a high level constantly and moving up from bars to stadiums really keeps you on your toes and I found it really inspiring. It made me want to write my own songs and determined to become better at what I do.”
Reunited after the Dylan tour, a buzzing James and a refreshed Smith teamed up again with bassist Jake Erwin. Their latest album, Wishful Thinking, has James firmly established as a songwriter, although the credits also list familiar names including Western Swingmeister Bob Wills, Hoagy Carmichael, George Gershwin and Tom Waits.
“We all bring ideas to the band and depending on how heated things get, songs either pass the selection test or they don’t,” she says. “I won’t tell you about some of the fights we’ve had but once we decide to go with a song, whether it’s by Django Reinhardt or Aerosmith [the rockers’ Chip Away the Stone has had the Hot Club treatment], we really go for it and put all our energy into it because we figure that if we feel uplifted by something, then the audience will feel motivated to come on the trip with us.”
From The Herald, May 16, 2009.