Hot Club of Cowtown sidesteps tumbleweeds, stomps out labels
Nothing irks Elana James more than to hear her trio described as being a part of some retro movement.
“We get pigeonholed as these western swing revivalists, which we absolutely can’t fucking stand,” James says over the phone from her Austin, Texas home. “This notion that we are living in a sepia-tone, alternative universe is complete bullshit.”
James, the sharp-tongued, fiddler and singer for Hot Club of Cowtown says that her music is just as modern as anything on Top 40 radio today. “It just so happens that this is what inspired this band.”
By “this,” James means western swing and hot jazz, two genres pioneered by artists like Bob Wills and Stephane Grappelli, respectively. The way she sees it, just because the music harkens back to a specific time and place—in the case of the aforementioned musical styles, the 1930s and 1940s—doesn’t mean that it can’t be thoroughly rooted in the present.
“Everyone draws on things that came before them,” James says.
And on Hot Club’s latest record, What Makes Bob Holler, the group is drawing on the music of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys—a seminal western swing outfit. The album is all Wills covers, ranging from the slow waltz of “A Maiden’s Prayer” to the fast-swinging “She’s Killing Me.”
The record showcases the talents of each band member. The group’s rhythm section, which consists of Jake Erwin on stand up bass and Whit Smith on guitar, is strong—propulsive and clicking away at a good clip on the upbeat numbers, and subdued but steady on the slower tunes. James’ voice can be sweet, mournful or sassy, depending on what the lyrics demand; and she proves to be quite the virtuosic fiddler, capable of delivering precise, frenetic runs just as well as expressive lamenting melodies.
The album was recorded in a series of single takes, a method the band settled upon in part out of sheer practicality.
“First of all, we had almost no time,” James says, explaining that the group’s label, Proper Records, only booked them three days worth of studio time, so there wasn’t much time to “screw around and order pizza.”
But there was another reason the group decided to ditch the overdubs.
“These songs shouldn’t be over fussed,” James says. “They shouldn’t be shellacked. The idea is that they are spontaneous, they are imperfect.”
What Makes Bob Holler was inspired both by the group’s appreciation of Wills as well as their audiences’ love for the music of His Texas Playboys.
“It has beautiful melodies and it is highly danceable,” James says of Wills’ compositions, noting that his tunes always get the crowd moving.
That doesn’t mean those who turn out for Hot Club of Cowtown’s show, May 4 at Don Quixote’s, will only hear Wills tunes. James says the band will play plenty of originals along with other standards from their repertoire of western swing and hot jazz numbers. With over a decade’s worth of performing and eight U.S. releases to their name, the Hot Club will certainly not be at a loss for material.
Although she sometimes resents the notion that her band is some sort of derivative, old timey throwback, she ultimately hopes that her audiences will be transported to a place not unlike the windswept West Texas desert where Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys made a name for themselves more than half a century ago.
“Cowtown is a state of mind,” she says. “It’s the cowtown of the imagination.”
Hot Club of Cowtown plays at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, May 4, at Don Quixote’s, 6275 Hwy 9, Felton. Tickets are $15. For more information, call 603-2294.