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For Elana James, there's life after Hot Club of Cowtown

By Ken Burke, March 2007

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Other circumstances brought the pair back together as well. "Out of the blue, this woman who had seen us in Boston seven years ago, she's a diplomat in the U.S. Foreign Service and contacted us to see if the Hot Club would like to do a tour for the U.S. State Department as musical ambassadors. So, we did a three-week tour of Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Armenia as Hot Club a couple of months ago."

These days, James is much more at ease with her responsibilities as bandleader, while Smith is apparently reveling in his work-for-hire role. "I think he's able to enjoy relaxing and just not having to worry about that stuff that was always his nemesis anyway."

Naturally, working high profile tours with an artist of Dylan's stature is big news. However, James is mum about her one-on-one dealings with the famed Voice of a Generation, preferring to say, "Usually, for those types of questions I feel like if he were doing an interview, he probably wouldn't talk about me, so I'm just going to return the favor."

That said, James is positively effusive about Nelson. "He has been so incredible," she gushes. "I first saw him when I played Farm Aid with a cowboy band that I used to be in many years ago…Nelson came out and performed with Hot Club of Cowtown on the tour we did with him and Dylan in 2004. Since that time, he has been so supportive and cool. I got to play on his most recent record. I played twin fiddles on that with Johnny Gimble. (Nelson's) just so inspiring with his artistic choices over the years and what he stands for. He's got a really pure heart, and it's such an honor to have met and worked with these people in my life."

Asked what she learned from playing with Dylan's band, James responds, "One thing I learned from performing with that band - both in getting to sit in with his band when Hot Club of Cowtown toured opening for him in 2004 - I tend to be very conservative musically. I don't like to play a tune unless I've rehearsed it, I know the changes and arrangement. The kinds of things he does, he takes a lot of chances, and he improvises. He improvises his vocals. He improvises his phrasing. Because of that, it's expressive and fresh everyday. I don't do that to a great degree yet with singing yet, mostly just my playing. But, I really think that I got a lot out of being up there on stage with him and feeling him come up with new stuff all the time - riffs and feels - and just fearlessly execute it, you know?"

These experiences fueled James's desire to make a new record and led to the formation her own label - Snarf Records. Asked if she got the name from an old underground comic book, James laughs before revealing the true origin of her label's moniker. "My name growing up was ‘Snarfie.' A lot of my family still calls me that. I think there was already a Snarfie Records. So, it became Snarf."

Calling her own shots, James takes pride in writing all the original songs for her solo debut. "In 2005, after I first stopped playing in Bob Dylan's band, I took the summer - which is usually the busiest time of year - off. I sat down at home, took my dog on walks and covered the kitchen table in CDs and poetry books and old music paper and stuff and just tried to concentrate on just writing because I knew if I didn't write some songs then, the window would close."

She also hired some of the Austin area's elite players á la Dave Biller, former Cave Catt Sammy frontman Beau Sample, Joe Kerr and Gimble. "Playing with Johnny Gimble inspires me to be more creative than I would naturally be or to pull something extra out of me," says James. "Offering that kind of inspiration to an up-and-comer I think is the sign of a generous soul, and a really great player."

Most importantly, James enjoyed having the authority to make tough creative choices. "If I didn't like something, I was able to change it. That was a luxury that I never really had before. We did a lot of Hot Club of Cowtown records where I always want to go hide under the dining room table because of the fourth bar of the sixth song or something."

The result is the most polished cowboy jazz and swing release James has been associated with to date. Ultimately, the break-up of Hot Club proved to be a positive event for an artist once shy about singing on-stage. "There's a really big difference whether you're standing three feet to the right or standing in the middle of the stage," she concludes philosophically. "For me, what that means is, if you sing, you gotta sing. I am so grateful that necessity has been the mother of invention over the last year and a half - you just have to get up there and sing. It's made me more confident and forced me to grow."

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