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Hot Club of Cowtown Ride the "Ghost Train"

By Ken Burke, October 2002

"We eat every meal together, we drive until two in the morning, and we spend a lot of time just staring into convenience food aisles," observes Hot Club Of Cowtown fiddle-player Elana Fremerman. "People never believe it when they see you on the Grand Ole Opry and your skirt is twinkling with gold sequins, but the reality is that you're spending a lot of time at the Exxon TigerMart."

Sound like they're complaining? Not hardly.

The Austin-based Hot Club Of Cowtown, have traveled a lot of hard miles since forming in 1997, and their respective gripes are actually the celebratory venting of a band who has transformed a hard-sell genre into a steady-paying niche market. The trio's hard-won success is reflected by near constant bookings and egged on by the release of their fourth HighTone album "Ghost Train."

"If we could've seen into the future we might've chosen a slightly different route," quips Hot Club guitarist Whit Smith. "It's not a good idea to pick a style of music that you have to explain to people. It's like 'What do you play?' Western Swing. 'What's that?' It's like Django Reinhardt and Bob Wills. Then their eyes look a dog that just heard something funny."

The members of Hot Club Of Cowtown a clever allusion to both their Western influences and the Hot Club of France where jazz innovators Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli played during the 30s traveled divergent musical paths before coming together.

Fremerman, 30, has been playing violin since she was five years old. Growing up in Prairie Village, Kansas, her parent's divorce exposed her to two distinct cultures her father's country house where she could ride horses and her professional violinist mother's home where classical music was always playing.

Speaking via cellphone while doing band business at home in Austin, Fremerman recalls, "Looking back on it as an adult, I find that was doing a reconciliation of those two exact halves of my upbringing through music."

That said, although the fiddle-phenom studied music in New York and India, these days Fremerman plays classical music only occasionally, allowing the Western half to become her dominant musical characteristic.

Eventually Fremerman's travels took her to Colorado where she worked as a horse wrangler on a high-toned dude ranch by day and played fiddle with the boss' house band Cowboy Ken and the Ranch Hand Band by night.

An internship with Harper's Magazine necessitated a move to New York. It's there she placed an ad in the Village Voice and met Whit Smith who was starting up the 11-piece Western Caravan, a Bob Willis styled aggregation which continues to play weekly at New York's Rodeo Bar.

Determined to make a living playing music, Fremerman left the Caravan and moved back to Colorado to play violin for Harold Dean and the Last Ride, a Top-40 country outfit with a few bad habits.

"That was the first time I went on tour," she laughs, "It was exciting, but everybody chain-smoked, and two or three of the guys in the band were alcoholics. What was great about that job was that I got to take all the solos and was forced to step up to the plate."

Although Whit Smith, 38, has been playing guitar since was a "real little kid," it took him quite a while to settle on a musical style. Throughout the 70s and 80s, the glib Connecticut native played in a series of soon-to-be-forgotten New York area rock bands la The Thieves of Eden and Pavlov's Dogs. After an ill-advised attempt at becoming a rock star in Japan, Smith moved to Boston for a brief stint with punk rock's The Blackjacks, before plunging into a series of small time musical projects.

Smith's landed some recording gigs with punk-poet icons Lenny Kaye and Patti Smith, but it was a day job at New York Tower Records store that changed his life.

"I was working on the jazz floor upstairs, that's where they kept the country records," recalls Smith from his motel room in Salt Lake City. "The person who ran the country section took a vacation so they put me in charge. As it turned out, Marshall Crenshaw's compilation 'Thank God It's Hillbilly Music' had just come out, and we were playing it all the time."

Intrigued, Smith picked the brain of a record company rep about Old Time music and was promptly gifted with copies of "Bob Wills' Tiffany Transcriptions, Volume One," "Speedy West Steel Guitar" and "Hank Williams' 40 Greatest." Enthralled, the drifting musician found his musical anchor in "all those country guys who made those jazzy little instrumental records" and started his first Western Swing band, the Dixie Riddle Cups, quickly followed by the aforementioned Western Caravan (the name "borrowed" from Tex Williams).

A big band with extra fiddles, steel guitars and coronet arrangements satisfied one aspect of Smith's musical visions, but didn't fulfill his long-range goal of actually earning a living playing music. Towards that end, he sought out Fremerman, who had departed Western Caravan six months earlier.

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