Austin, Texas, trio The Hot Club of Cowtown doesn't have many more weddings ahead in its career (and this one was more gift than booking). The band has two albums out on respected indie Hightone and a vigorous touring schedule that will put the band in front of South by Southwest audiences this month, and its unique, giddy twang seems poised to be visited on the masses.
So it's a surprise that Elana Fremerman, Hot Club's violinist-singer (and a 1988 graduate of Shawnee Mission East), is still a relative newcomer to the Bob Wills-inspired sound the group has mastered. It's still even a surprise to Fremerman, who, during stretches as a Harper's magazine intern, the managing editor of Buddhist journal Tricycle, and a Colorado horse wrangler, never envisioned life as a full-time musician, let alone as one who plays western swing.
"I didn't really know about western swing, or swing, except that I had an idea in mind that a lot of people have: big bands, horns, hats, Glenn Miller. That never struck a chord with me at all," Fremerman says. "But Whit (Smith, who sings and plays guitar for the trio) had lots of tapes of hot jazz string players from the '40s. I don't know who played it, but it was so elegant and classy and fiery and American." Smith had met Fremerman when both lived in New York City. She placed an ad in The Village Voice in 1994 looking for session work and ended up playing regularly with the big western swing band that occupied Smith's time (Western Caravan). "He was nice, and I liked the way he played," Fremerman says. "I would go over every weekend until the (western swing) music became a priority. It just started taking me over."
"There was a special electricity that made me wish we could play out together. I remember thinking, 'This is so cool. We could make a band doing this,'" she says of the practice time the pair put in, during which Smith would play her his tapes.
The two moved to Austin in 1997, where they soon were joined by bass player Billy Horton. The newly minted group set about learning lots of songs, developing a repertoire that allowed them to play as long as four hours at a stretch without repeating themselves (a handy wedding skill).
"We didn't used to use set lists," Fremerman says. "Now we talk to the audience more. When we started, we'd play a long time without taking a break, but audiences need one every 40 or 50 minutes. And we introduce the songs more. If I went to go hear Gypsy music, I'd love for them to tell me what songs they're playing."
The Gypsy music reference is not a throwaway. Fremerman is a devotee of the violin-driven stuff, even recently learning a song from a videotaped documentary, Latcho Drome, that her guitar teacher introduced her to. And Fremerman studied raga and north Indian music (on viola) in India while doing post-graduate work there (she has a religious studies degree from Barnard College). "I had a cool teacher in India that was eccentric. We'd take a boat down the river and play. There is a fluidity that comes from the raga scale and the colors suited to it."
It was in India that Fremerman began to improvise for the first time. "I was petrified of it," she admits. "But it's not that hard to improvise. I didn't do it until I'd been out of college a few years, and there's still so much for me to develop. But the violin has an aesthetic you can't get on the guitar. I can make sounds on it that make Whit envious, but he can do weird patterns that have the same effect on me."
Of course, the Hot Club isn't an experimental ensemble -- unless you count the seeming lack of a big audience for corn- rather than Korn-fed licks. But the group has earned raves from the outside, prompting Rolling Stone Online to comment that even "BR5-49 ain't got diddly on" it. And the trio is about to enter the studio for its third album, which will be produced by veteran session ace and Dixie Chick-dad Lloyd Maines.
"We're looking at doing the album in April," Fremerman says. "We're going to spend about two and a half weeks on it at San Marcos' Fire Station in Austin." That's about four times the studio hours logged to make last year's impressive Tall Tales, something that hints both at Hot Club's development (the band is writing more songs this time out -- Tales had only four strong originals) and Hightone's confidence that it has a winner.
The dates will mark the first time new bass player Matt Weiner has recorded with Hot Club. Weiner knew Smith and Fremerman from New York, where he gigged with the Flying Nutrinos.
"Billy went on to his new life for himself," Fremerman says of the amicable split. "A life that didn't involve sitting in the back of a van." The biggest inconvenience, she says, was getting a new publicity photo taken and delivered to the label. "Don't even get me started on how long that took. It was an emergency measure," she says, laughing.
It's a safe bet that although no more lineup changes are planned, The Hot Club would have no trouble attracting members in the future. The band has tapped a love of a particular American sound held dear by a fraternity of gifted fringe musicians. ("We played with Johnny Gimble," Fremerman says, sounding genuinely awestruck. "You play with him, and you're like, 'Okay, that's how it's done.' The universe shifts when he takes a solo"). Even songs outside the Bob Wills universe have been imaginatively realized by the group. (See Hot Club's take of "Polka Dots and Moonbeams.") These musicians don't stop at scratching the niche -- they live it.
"What we play, I love to play," Fremerman says. "There's nothing else I'd rather play. Whit doesn't either. If we ever have time off the road, we practice, learn new songs, and arrange things we have. Because no matter how good you are, if you're not working with like-minded people, it's not going to work." The Hot Club of Cowtown is busy making everybody it can like-minded. On the evidence of its albums (and the occasional wedding), that's a good way to be.
The Hot Club of CowtownSaturday, March 18at Davey's Uptown