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This club gets it swing just right

By Jon Johnson, December 1998

"The young guy behind the counter had a shaved head, a rivet through his bottom lip, and baggy surfer shorts on. He flipped through the cards I'd chosen, fingers flittering over the till, then stopped at an old sepia photograph of a cowboy in boots and hat, flying off a bucking bronc. Surprise and disgust creased across his face.

That old nostalgic crap! he said.

Pardon? All this horse and Stetson stuff. It's garbage! Nobody dresses like that in Texas anymore.

You're joking, I said. Everybody does. Well, not everybody: not you. But out in the country you can't get moved for Stetsons! No, he said, Not any more. It's just in the movies, or at the line dance clubs where all the fat-assed secretaries go. Nobody seriously wears high boots and ten gallon hats any more."
- Duncan McLean from "Lone Star Swing" (1997)

It's a heartbreaking moment for McLean and his readers as he realizes that western swing is dying in Texas; the old dance halls shuttered and decrepit (if still standing at all), the silenced fiddles lying in their cases in the backs of old closets, and the once-mighty touring buses abandoned in junk yards or on vacant lots, rusting and blowing away with the wind.

Sure, a few younger bands like Asleep at the Wheel and Tom Morrell's Timewarp Tophands continue to carry the torch, but compared to the hundreds of outfits that once dotted the southwest, it's a sad state of affairs for western swing. After the pride comes the fall, indeed.....

Fortunately, someone forgot to tell the Hot Club of Cowtown that western swing had been relegated to the status of "old nostalgic crap," and the Austin music scene is all the better for that omission.

Made up of guitarist/vocalist Whit Smith, fiddle player/vocalist Elana Fremerman and upright bassist Billy Horton (who also plays with local rockabilly band the Horton Brothers), the Hot Club of Cowtown might not wear "high boots and ten gallon hats," but these were later additions to the western swing style in any event; adopted when Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys began appearing in westerns.

The Hot Club of Cowtown, which released its HighTone debut "Swingin' Stampede " this fall, is, more than anything else, reminiscent of western swing's early days of the mid-'30's, when the groups dressed and sounded more like East coast jazz and swing bands of that decade.

"All the '20's jazz guys; I love the way they solo," says Smith, 34. "I love Emmett Miller. I like Bing Crosby's '20's and '30's recordings a lot. And, of course, endless Bob Wills recordings...."

Smith and Fremerman first hooked up in New York City about five years ago when Smith was putting together an 11-piece western swing group called the Western Caravan that became a regular fixture at the city's Rodeo Bar.

"I'd never heard of western swing," says the 28-year-old Fremerman. "I never knew such a thing existed. I used to play classical, and right before I met Whit I was playing in a cowboy band on a ranch in Clark, Col. that I used to do in the summer. I went to New York City for an internship at Harper's magazine, and I wanted to play music, so I put an ad in the Village Voice. Whit answered my ad, and I went over to his apartment, and we played, and I really liked the way he played. After a while it grew, and we had a western swing band."

"Finally, I got hired to play in a country band full time that went on the road in Colorado, so I moved away from New York permanently. Whit decided that he really didn't want to stay in New York, either, so he followed me out to Colorado, and then the two of us moved to San Diego."

"It had triple fiddles and steel guitar and piano and trumpet," says Smith of his experience with the Western Caravan. "It was lots of fun, but it was impractical. I didn't know how to make it get out on the road, so that's why we thought a little band would be good."

While Smith and Fremerman had occasionally used the name Hot Club of Cowtown while at an Irish pub called Ansea in New York (the name is a nod to the famous French jazz group of the '30's, Le Quintette du Hot Club de France), it was in San Diego where they first began working with a bassist regularly under that name and recorded a demo that eventually came to the attention of HighTone.

It was also in San Diego where they first met Bobby Horton, brother of Billy Horton, now the band's bassist.

"Bobby was staying with Dave Stuckey (late of the Dave and Deke Combo), and Whit was through there at one point, and Bobby said, 'When you guys come to Austin, you can come stay with us.' San Diego wasn't really the place that was most conducive to moving ahead in what we wanted to be doing, which was playing western swing. So when we showed up here a year ago, we went to Bobby's and Billy's house, and we slept on their floor for a few weeks."

"Our first stop was at their house, and we dumped our stuff (there)," adds Smith.

Fremerman finishes the story. "We would just sit around and jam sometimes at night in their living room. Billy had been playing with the Asylum Street Spankers, but we asked him if he would join us, and he said yes."

1998 has been a whirlwind of activity for the group. Since the 23-year-old Horton joined in March, the group recorded their self-produced album in April and undertook a 10-week-long tour during the fall.

In addition to the group's three permanent members, the album also features appearances by Lucky Stars/Wayne Hancock steel player Jeremy Wakefield and former Texas Playboy fiddle player Johnny Gimble, who the group originally asked to produce the record. ("He kind of wanted to, but he's busy and didn't have a lot of time," says Fremerman, who adds that ex-High Noon guitarist Sean Mencher had also been asked to produce the album at one point)

The band wears its Bob Wills influence on their collective sleeve. Wills wrote or co-wrote three of the album's 14 songs and recorded several others at various points during his long career.

And how did Smith become aware of western swing, having been raised in the northeast?

"I was getting a little tired of playing rock guitar, and about 1990, I heard a Bob Wills Tiffany Transcription. I was trying to play jazz, but it wasn't coming naturally. But you can really play a lot of jazzy things over western swing because the melody is much more straightforward, and it has a driving rhythm."

"A lot of people get into different kinds of music as they get older, and I guess I was just ready."