Despite its abbreviated three-piece lineup, Hot Club of Cowtown is the pistol-packin' ruler of Western swing and all the genres that lead up to it. The band puts forth a classic array of tempos and grooves with an understated allegiance and aplomb. It's like Django Reinhardt in the tumbleweeds, or Bob Wills sipping coffee at a pre-war Parisian café.
HCC treads lightly whenever it slips into a genre, offering nothing in the way of ownership through interpretation or variation. It doesn't bogart the tune. Anything -- any style from any era -- this band performs, maintains its history and identity. Neither the band, nor the song is compromised. And yet HCC is truly one of a kind with its swingin' swagger.
As the name alludes, HCC plays hot jazz: music inspired by Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli's Hot Club of France with a powerful lean toward Western swing. The Austin, Texas-based group -- vocalist and fiddle player Elana James, guitarist Whit Smith, and bassist Jake Erwin -- has been circling the globe since the release of its first album, "Swingin' Stampede," in 1998. A dozen albums and several solo outings later and Hot Club of Cowtown rides on still; its versatility and virtuosity abound.
City tracked down James to ask a few questions and walked away with an education. Here's what was said; here's what we learned. An edited transcript of that conversation follows.
City: What's the latest in Cowtown?
Elana James: Our latest album is "Midnight on the Trail," which came out in February 2016. It's available online and on our website, and of course, at all our live shows.
How's "Midnight on the Trail" been received?
"Midnight on the Trail" is actually one we put out ourselves and have not publicized too much -- it was intended as a live show album to add to the collections of our true believers, of which there are many. It's a collection of some of our favorite Western swing tunes and also some cowboy ballads -- songs by Gene Autry, Cindy Walker, Johnny Mercer, as well as some traditional songs. We are doing a lot of those live on this tour, and also are continuing to play a wide array of our own songs and things from our hefty repertoire of the past almost two decades.
Tell us a little about the making of "Midnight on the Trail."
We made it in Austin late last year, very simple, in about four days. There are no guests, just we three in the studio. These are very traditional songs and though we came up with all our own arrangements for all of them, we recorded them traditionally without any fuss.
What do you like about this album? What sets it apart from your earlier ones?
"Midnight on the Trail" completes a set of our three most recent albums, along with "Rendezvous in Rhythm" and "What Makes Bob Holler," that showcase the band's roots and inspirations. We write many of our own songs, and in our live show, we play a number of them, but because we are an improvising hot jazz and Western swing trio, nothing ever gets served up the same way twice.
"Midnight on the Trail" has some songs on it that we have loved for a long time, or been playing live and never yet recorded. So it's a clearing house for some of those. It's also a western-themed collection. A lot of our earlier albums were a combination of jazzy Western and originals. We'll likely go back toward that format for our next album -- forthcoming in 2017-18 --which is the band's 20th anniversary. We are amassing new songs and writing for the next record right now.
What is it about your band -- and you as a solo artist -- that over the years has other musicians like Roxy Music and Bob Dylan inviting you on tour?
I think there are a few things at play. One is that the band was born from our love for playing our instruments first and our excitement and obsession with this repertoire. We wanted to become fluent and live inside it, and that zeal we brought to it really created a sound almost like a contemporary of the kinds of bands that first inspired us -- early hot jazz and Western swing from the 1920's until the beginning of WWII.
So many greats that have careers based on their own songwriting, or whatever modern pop or innovations that they are known for, have a deep respect for, and vast knowledge of, this repertoire of American Songbook standards, hot jazz, traditional American music. All of that has gone into their own alchemy in becoming the artists we know them to be. But I think our sound appeals to some of those kinds of people because we have hewn to a pretty authentic style, and also, we have come at it as instrumentalists first, and writers second.
That has kept us in a seemingly dwindling minority of acts who come at the music first to learn it and only later to put their own stamp on it -- as opposed to being songwriters first. I know that Whit, Jake, and I are Luddites in the sense that we have great respect for the roots of this music, and have tried to continue on in the tradition as tastefully and respectfully as possible, but we also infuse our shows and our playing with a modern, live dynamism to rival any rock or pop band.
I often think of music as being very similar to cooking: some things are just timeless and don't need to be constantly messed with to be deeply satisfying. It's an improvisational style and we serve it fresh every time we play together. That is really just a traditional approach to American swing and early jazz, and I think all those sorts of things have allowed us some of the wonderful opportunities we've enjoyed over the years: Bob Dylan tours, Willie Nelson, Bryan Ferry, Gatemouth Brown, Dan Hicks.
Do your Gypsy jazz leanings completely meld together with the sound of Western swing, or do they possess separate identities depending on the song?
It's interesting how seamless the transition can be from traditional fiddle tunes like "Ida Red" to hardcore ballads like "Someone to Watch over Me" during our show. In the 1930's and 1940's especially, there are infinite recordings of bands anchored with fiddle, guitar, and bass (the Quintet of the Hot Club of France to Hugh and Karl Farr with the Sons of the Pioneers) that can swing in any direction.
Stephane Grappelli may play "Swanee" and turn around and kill "How High the Moon" and anything else he wanted. The Farr Brothers recorded countless standards, like "Deed I Do" and "Up a Lazy River," but were best known for being the instrumental anchor for the Sons of the Pioneers. The common denominator is swinging rhythm, inspired improvisation, and a rich, acoustic approach to early swing before it got cool and taken over by wind instruments. Obviously the unbiased account of history from a fiddle player.
How do you keep a contemporary relevance to your music, particularly with classic tunes by artists like Bob Wills?
Again, to me that's like asking a chef how they can keep serving beef in 2016 when people have been eating if for thousands of years. Personally, I am exhausted by the insidious premium on "innovation" or things seemingly needing to be "new," especially in music.
Speaking for myself, I don't always like things that are new, and I know I must not be the only one. Every day we wake up is new, and we create something fresh every day from the raw ingredients of our own lives. Music is no different. A song you may have heard played one way on a recording from 1947 is going to sound the same but different if you play it today. It's that historical connection that I think can be deeply satisfying for people.
That's not to say we don't write our own songs -- we absolutely do and will continue to. But there is nothing wrong in connecting your writing and playing to the zeitgeist of what people may already know and will respond to. Just because people used to eat biscuits years ago in the mountains of Montana, are we supposed to think that time to eat biscuits has come and gone? No. When we bite into a biscuit, or hear an old fiddle tune, or have a glass of wine and listen to Joe Venuti and Eddie Lang playing in the Paul Whiteman Orchestra, or see a band play live, improvising and being completely in the moment, it can be deeply satisfying on an ineffable level that never loses emotional relevance.
How do you put your tag on a cover tune that isn't necessarily in your genre? For example, "Someone to Watch over Me."
I first approached this music as a violin player, and only later began to sing. When we do a song like "Someone to Watch over Me" I try to let the song do its thing, and not mess with the melody at all. Personally, and this is just my personal taste, I don't like overly-filigreed interpretations of lyrics, generally speaking.
Some of my favorite vocalists -- Mildred Bailey, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Peggy Lee, Blossom Dearie, Kay Starr, Willie Nelson -- are people who, to my mind, let the song speak for itself -- or give the illusion that it is, and the technique they bring to that seems invisible, so that the singing is effortless, almost like they are just speaking the truth. That is a masterful thing to pull off. That's my favorite kind of singing so I try to stay with that as my guiding inspiration. Is it true? Is it emotionally true? That's what I try and put first.
Will you always remain a trio?
Three definitely is a magic number. It has worked for us so far, and so we have no plans to change it up.
What are you most proud of?
I think it's pretty incredible that we've been able to tour internationally and play professionally, to do this for almost two decades, and that we have been fortunate enough to find -- and continue to grow -- an audience for what is undeniably an almost breathtakingly non-commercial format of music. It really is a case of do what you love and you'll never work another day in your life.
We would be playing this music (and do) for fun whether we were professional musicians or not. To build a life playing music, to support ourselves doing it, to not be beholden in any way to anyone else's idea of what we should be doing, what would "sell" better, that is a great gift that only feels sweeter as time goes by. We have achieved what we have so far because of the love and loyalty of our fans first and foremost, and because we somehow believed it could work. And so far, it really has.
Is there a better guitar player on the planet than Whit Smith?
One hundred years from now what will they be saying about Hot Club of Cowtown?
Hopefully we'll be considered part of an illustrious collection of American roots artists who contributed to 21st century American music in a unique and unforgettable way. Also we may be known for our fearless and deeply committed tour manager of the past 13 years, Eva, who is my dog and is a legend in her own right.