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Hot Club of Cowtown tells "tall tales"

By Brian Baker, September 1999

One listen to the Hot Club of Cowtown's recorded legacy and you just know there's a 78 collector in the trio. In this case, it happens to be guitarist Whit Smith, an avowed thrift store junkie who scours the racks for obscure tunes from a bygone era of American musical culture.

The difference between Smith and the garden variety collector is that one of Smith's great unknown B-side finds could easily wind up in the repertoire of the Hot Club of Cowtown, one of the hottest new retro outfits to burn up a dance floor. And like the best of the new crop of like minded history buffs, HCOC knows how to fashion an original to sound right at home in a set list that might average 60 years old on any given night.

"Tall Tales," HCOC's sophomore release for Hightone, documents the band's first attempts at writing original tunes. The trio's debut, last year's "Swingin' Stampede," was a straight covers album with no original music at all.

But as the band toured and became more comfortable as a unit, it became clear that they were charting a course toward creating their own songs to add to the mix. Of course, there are certain limitations in adhering to an often pre-war aesthetic. Fiddler extraordinaire Elana Fremerman found that somewhat daunting while creating her Western swing track, "Darling You and I Are Through."

"I was concerned with the words," Fremerman says just prior to a gig on an East Coast jaunt. "Having been born in 1970, it's not second nature for me to think in those sentimental terms, like '20's songs. I have a lot of fakebooks from the '20's, and I looked through a lot of those and just tried to steep myself in that frame of mind. One thing I learned writing that song was that less is more. I had all these verses, and I was going to do this and this, and in the end, it was like, 'Save that for something else. This is going to be about one thing.'"

Fremerman may have found it difficult to focus initially because HCOC is so good at everything. From Bob Wills-inflected Western swing to hot '20's/'30's jazz to Tin Pan Alley nuggets, the Hot Club knows its history well and has the internal chemistry to put that knowledge to its best use.

The trio, Fremerman on fiddle, Smith on guitar and Billy Horton on bass, has only been together in this form for two years. Fremerman and Smith worked together in a New York swing band, Dixie Riddle Cups, which metamorphised into an 11-piece big band called Western Caravan.

Fremerman relocated to California in the mid-'90's, and Smith eventually followed. They formed a duo and began to understand the nuances of playing together without the overwhelming accompaniment of a large band. They debuted as Hot Club of Cowtown in 1996 and shortly thereafter moved to Austin.

There, they met bassist Horton, also an avid 78 collector, who had done work in a duo with his brother in The Horton Brothers and the Asylum Street Spankers, a rotating collective of musicians that works in many of the same idioms as HCOC. The line-up clicked immediately.

Although Hot Club includes a few better known tunes in its sets, there is a clear preference among the members for the more challenging and lesser recognized numbers.

"We love to do Bob Wills songs," says Fremerman. "And because they covered so many songs that were pop standards and not just cowboy songs or strictly Western swing songs, we get a lot of ideas for how to put a set together from that band. One minute they play 'Dinah' or 'Chinatown,' and the next they'll do "Sally Goodin," then they'll do an old waltz, then they'll do a hot fiddle breakdown with a jazzy arrangement. We don't actually do some of the more obvious and maybe even crowd-pleasing songs, and part of it is that Whit hasn't learned the words to some of those yet. But we tend to go for more of the hot and fiery but off the beaten path kind of tunes that people would like and do like, but aren't familiar with them, the ones that are on the periphery of the genre. So those are some of our favorites, because they have funky chord changes, and they're fresh."

Fresh is not often a word associated with music that in some cases predates radio, but the Hot Club of Cowtown have a passion for this era that shines through every time they cover an old beloved tune or write a brand new one that seamlessly fits in the context of their turn of the century playlist. For the Hot Club of Cowtown, there's no Y2K problem...it's always 1900 in their programs.