Hot Club of Cowtown is a complex band filled with surprises. Evidence: The two singers trade off lead vocals, but the band also plays a lot of instrumentals. They've been successful as a traditional guitar, violin and stand-up bass combo, but recently added a drummer to mix things up on their latest CD, "Wishful Thinking."
The band, which reformed after a hiatus, is complicated not only musically, but also logistically. Founding members Elana James and Whit Smith live in different states: James in Texas and Smith in Oklahoma.
Catching up with the James and Smith on their last night in their respective homes before they continued their tour in the United Kingdom revealed potential good news for the band. James, who lives in Austin, was delighted when Smith announced he might move from Tulsa, his home of two years, back to Austin. That would leave bassist Jake Erwin in Dallas, but the prospect of a shorter commute for all three to rehearse left James enthusiastic.
When violinist James and guitarist Smith first met in New York City more than a decade ago, they were able to play music together once or twice a week for hours at a time. James says, "There's nothing to compare to saying, 'Hey, let's meet up this afternoon, and we'll drink a lot of coffee and have some snacks and learn a couple new Django Reinhardt songs.' And since we haven't all been in the same town, it's been much more difficult."
Many things have changed since the band formed in New York and then relocated to Austin. They toured a lot; they took a break from touring; they took a break to work on side projects, and now after a seven-year absence from the studio, they have recorded a self-released album of new material after spending a chunk of time on the defunct HighTone label.
For the new album, they added Damien Llanes on drums because both Smith and James had played with him in Austin. James says adding a drummer may not be permanent, but it was a deliberate move to alter the band's sound. She says, "It gives the ballads a deeper dimension. It also takes away some of the extreme folk perception of the band, which is something we've struggled with through the years. There's something about a drum that, for me, just brings it into more of the jazz idiom more naturally. Damien does a great job - it's swingy and subtle and appropriate."
Heart of Romaine at Smoky Hill River Festival, Salina Kansas, June 2009
The band recorded in Austin in three sessions over several months. Smith says there were advantages to that method because they had time to listen to the recordings after each session and think about that they wanted to record next or go back in the studio to change things.
James says that compared to their previous work, the record may sound a little mellower, but it's also more polished. Before recording, James had a goal of having five originals, which she admits is a challenge because songwriting isn't her natural mode. "As an instrumentalist, my natural instinct used to be to practice the violin," but she adds, "I'm really happy with these songs. I'm probably more proud of this record than any record we've put out."
On an album that includes a cover of Hoagy Carmichael's Georgia, Irving Berlin's Someone to Watch Over Me and a turn on Tom Waits The Long Way Home that's surprisingly almost unrecognizable, the songs by James and Smith more than hold their own.
The new songs make a good argument for skipping some instrumental practice in exchange for more songwriting sessions. James' Reunion is catchy and bouncy in a way that almost camouflages the bittersweet layers of the lyrics. She also wrote the witty, Gypsy-influenced instrumental, Heart of Romaine – it's much better than the slightly corny pun might suggest.
James and Smith collaborated on One Step Closer, and both musicians say it might surprise people who already know the band. James calls it a "spaghetti western sort of song" and has a special fondness for it. "Whit came up with the idea, and whenever he comes up with these ideas, I'm always very excited because of all of us, Whit is the most traditionally oriented and if left to his own devices would be playing mostly Bix Beiderbecke and George Barnes."
James says that the song started with an image that Smith had of "a girl in tall boots on a 1960s stage with klieg lights, with this kind of breathy style of singing, and then we put the words together and put the arrangement together, but it was his vision. People have said, 'Where did that come from?' It's like we're covering a different song," James says. "There's a lot of that in us, but we have chosen to challenge what we play through this idiom, so there are different variations in what we can bring out. We can only bring out so much of it at a time."
James and Smith both agree that the band's name and image have created some challenges. James says, "I guess for us, unfortunately, we got pegged early on as more country swing, which there is some truth to, but so many people don't have any idea what that is that, and you just get lumped into so many things that don't have anything to do with your tastes. It's been a handicap to us because what we do is so much more accessible and current than what the name suggests or the perception of the band."
"So, I think with this record we've tried to present a contemporary, polished, very current band. We're modern people living in the modern world playing this kind of music. It does happen to swing, but that's great. That's not a liability - that's an asset. Every band is retro in the sense that it's drawn its inspiration from someone or something that's gone before."
Smith agrees and says they chose a harder route by not sticking with a more easily identifiable image, by not wearing only vintage clothes, even though they like vintage clothes. "But we don't want to play only 1930s Bob Wills -even though I love those songs," Smith says, "We've always had this ambition that we want to bring this music to more people of all ages, younger people. We're contemporary; we're not doing covers, we're interpreting the music and giving our own version of it that's spontaneous and full of improvisations, so that becomes pretty hard to explain without having everyone's eyes glaze over."
"When we do a show, there will be some young people there who like some of the swing songs, and then there will be some old timer there in a cowboy hat who just wants to hear Ida Red," Smith says. "We love to play all those songs, and the audience either likes all the songs or they just sit through some songs to get to the other stuff, but I'm just glad they're there."
"It's also true that the most unlikely people like the most unlikely things," James says. "You think that is a dyed in the wool West Texas ranch guy, and then he'll come over you after the set and say, I like that One Step Closer or I love that Gypsy song you did. It's true that people also look to a band for inspiration or to be enlightened. In a way it's almost our job to bring new, fresh stuff to people because you never know who's going to love what – And ultimately it doesn't matter because it's what we love, because we're the ones up there doing this with our lives."
Explained in those terms - making music that they love regardless of the labels - Hot Club of Cowtown doesn't seem so complicated after all.