On early Hot Club of Cowtown releases, fiddler Elena James had to share the "stage" with - or defer to, really - elder statesmen like Johnny Gimble. On this long overdue tribute to one of the group's primary inspirations, Bob Wills, it's just James, guitarist/vocalist Whit Smith and bassist/backup singer Jake Erwin, and James' fiddle subtly dominates.
It's a curious anointment, fiddle as frontman. It occurs primarily on the Wills classics Faded Love and Maiden's Prayer. They aren't solos, but in an environment that's usually more democratic, perhaps to its detriment, the fiddle moves center stage. It whines, it moans, it whispers, it sings. James' instrumental work - she also shares lead-vocal duties - is distinctive for its extended, coiling notes, which may go from a wail to a shriek and back without breaking stride, always bristling with energy and expression.
An HCC release is like a party on a 4.7-inch disc. In that, it could not find a more accommodating framework than the oeuvre of Wills' Texas Playboys, who spent more than three decades traveling the dance-hall circuit of the West. Among the many familiar numbers, two unexpected inclusions - The Devil Ain't Lazy and Oklahoma Hills - stand out, Devil for its quirky, amusing lyrics, Oklahoma for its balance. The latter, written by Jack and Woody Guthrie, a hit for Jack and part of the Playboys' lengthy playlist, here finds James trading vocal and fiddle licks with Smith's sprightly guitar. In unity, there is still strength.