Kansas City native Elana James has been singing and fiddling with western swing trio the Hot Club of Cowtown for more than 15 years. In that time, the Austin-based group has recorded numerous albums, including the boisterous live album Continental Stomp, as well as a recent selection of Bob Wills' tunes, What Makes Bob Holler. This is to say nothing of the band's amazing string of opening slots for such musical legends as Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, and Asleep at the Wheel.
We spoke with James by phone about the band's new album and what the Hot Club of Cowtown brings to Wills' music.
The Pitch: Does the band's name come from growing up in Kansas City?
Elana James: No, it's actually not a place; it's in the imagination, like a "Cowtown of the Imagination." Everyone thinks it's Ft. Worth, because we live in Texas. We tell people from Ft. Worth that we live in Austin, and they're like, how could we think that Austin is "Cowtown"? It's like, "Nobody's saying that. It's called the Hot Club of Cowtown, people." Dodge City is what I think of when I think of a "cow town" or, like, the rail yards in Kansas City. But, come to Texas, and they don't care about that. They're all about Ft. Worth.
The name of the band that it's a reference to is the Quintet of the Hot Club of France, which was, of course, the hot jazz combo of Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli. So, I come from that, but because we play hoedowns and western swing and stuff, we thought it would be kind of funny to call it the Hot Club of Cowtown. But who knew it would create these crazy ideas from people? In Europe, people probably think America is Cowtown.
Now, the group has covered Bob Wills before.
Oh, yeah. We started out playing Bob Wills songs. That's how we just originally began, but this latest record is a western swing project. The band isn't strictly western swing. We play a lot of our own songs, play a lot of swing and jazz - stuff like that.
Given that you've covered so many genres, what led to the idea for What Makes Bob Holler?
We worked with a British label for many years, and they offered us some studio time during a lull of a tour of the UK. They were like, "Get in there and see what you can do." Also, in Europe, the idea of western swing is a specialty - so American - that it's very popular over there, in a sense. The idea from the label owner was just, "Why don't you just do a straight western swing record? Here's a studio. Here are three days." So, it wasn't that hard for us to do, because that's what the band started out doing, and we just got in there and we knocked it out, whatever it was - 16 songs in two days, and then kept 14 of them.
What do you think What Makes Bob Holler has to offer that the Pine Valley Cosmonauts Salute the Majesty of Bob Wills or the Willie and the Wheel album don't?
I think the question is, "What does anyone have to offer a standard?" When you're knocked out by a certain style, and you reinterpret it on your own - I don't think I've heard either of those records, actually - the idea is that this music brings out emotional responses in people, in that people like it, people love it, you can dance to to it, and musicians like to play it. That is why this band does it. Plus, this band tours all over the world, so when we play some of these songs live, our fans like to go home with them, or it's a way for people to discover us.
We think of these songs as standards, in a sense, rather than covering a song. Covering it means you're going to do it exactly like the original version, and I'm sure the Pine Valley Cosmonauts don't do that. I know that Willie and the Wheel don't. It's just like the American songbook. They're standards that are reinterpreted over and over. They're timeless. So, when the Hot Club of Cowtown makes a western swing record, it's our hand at reinterpreting these songs. You know what I mean?
Yeah! There's a reason the song is called "Bob Wills Is Still the King." So, how was the album recorded? You say you did it in two days, but do you do it as a three-piece, live in the studio, or is it otherwise?
Yeah. In reference to your other question, the difference between our band and the Pine Valley Cosmonauts or Asleep at the Wheel is that we're a trio and we are only a trio. We've played as a trio for 15 years, and that's the sound of the band, so when we went into the studio, the three of us play live, and that's it. We tend to gravitate toward the earlier sound of western swing, which is when the Hot Crust Doughboys were getting started. That's what really knocks us out of the earlier period of western swing. That era is much more suited to a small, "hot" combo, so that's what we do.
When it came to making this record, we just got in and knocked it out. Other records, we've fussed over for months and written our own songs, and had these super-sophisticated arrangements and all kinds of things. This is not that record. This is a little more spontaneous, hopefully a little more raw, energetic path at western swing.