Hot Club of Cowtown
Hot Club of Cowtown
Western swing trio
The Hot Club of Cowtown has revived the lost art of cowboy jazz for enthusiastic roots music audiences worldwide, although mainstream audiences might find their style difficult to fathom. "If we could've seen into the future we might've chosen a slightly different route," quipped Hot Club guitarist Whit Smith in a Country Standard Time interview. "It's not a good idea to pick a style of music that you have to explain to people. It's like 'What do you play?' Western Swing. 'What's that?' It's like Django Rheinhart and Bob Wills. Then their eyes, they look just like a dog that just heard a funny sound."
The name of the Austin-based Hot Club Of Cowtown is a clever allusion to both their Western swing influences and the Quintette of the Hot Club of France, in which jazz innovators Django Reinhart and Stephane Grappelli played during the 1930s. The group has traveled a lot of hard miles since forming in 1997, and any regrets they might air concerning the course of their career actually represent triumphant modesty on the part of a band that has taken a hard-to-sell genre and made it pay steadily in a niche market.
Members Came From Different Genres
The members of the Hot Club followed various musical paths before they came together. Elana Fremerman had played the violin since she was five years old. As she grew up in Prairie Village, Kansas, her parents' divorce exposed her to two distinct cultures—that of her father's country house, where she could ride horses, and that of her professional violinist mother's home, where classical music was always playing. As Fremerman recalled, "Looking back on it as an adult, I find that was doing a reconciliation of those two exact halves of my upbringing through music." Although the young fiddle-and-violin phenomenon studied music in New York and in India, Fremerman played classical music only occasionally after the Hot Club of Cowtown took off. The Western half of her musical personality became dominant.
Eventually Fremerman's travels took her to Colorado, where she worked as a horse wrangler on a high-toned dude ranch by day and played fiddle with the boss's house band, Cowboy Ken and the Ranch Hand Band, by night. An internship with Harper's Magazine necessitated a move to New York, and it was there that she placed an ad in the Village Voice, hoping to join up with other musicians. She met guitarist Whit Smith, who was starting up the 11-piece Western Caravan, a Bob Wills-styled aggregation that continued to play weekly at New York's Rodeo Bar even after Fremerman and Smith departed.
Although Whit Smith had played guitar since he was a "real little kid," it took him quite a while to settle on a musical style. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s the glib Connecticut native played in a series of soon-to-be-forgotten New York area rock bands such as The Thieves of Eden and Pavlov's Dogs. After an ill-advised attempt at becoming a rock star in Japan, Smith moved to Boston for a brief stint with punk rock band the Blackjacks, and then plunged into a series of smalltime musical projects.
Smith's association with musician Tom Clark led to some recording gigs with punk-poet icons Lenny Kaye and Patti Smith, but it was a day job at a New York Tower Records store that changed his life. "I was working on the jazz floor upstairs, that's where they kept the country records," recalled Smith. "The person who ran the country section took a vacation for a week or two, so they put me in charge. As it turned out, Marshall Crenshaw's compilation Thank God It's Hillbilly Music had just come out, and we were playing it all the time." Intrigued, Smith picked the brain of a record company representative about old-time music and promptly received gratis copies of Western swing giant Bob Wills's Tiffany Transcriptions, Volume One, Speedy West's Steel Guitar, and Hank Williams's 40 Greatest Hits.
Enthralled, the drifting musician found his musical anchor in "all those country guys who made those jazzy little instrumental records," and started his first Western swing band, the Dixie Riddle Cups, quickly followed by the aforementioned Western Caravan (the band's name was borrowed from that of Western swing bandleader Tex Williams). A big band with extra fiddles, steel guitars, and cornet arrangements satisfied one aspect of Smith's musical vision but didn't fulfill his long-range goal of actually earning a living playing music. Towards that end, he sought out Fremerman, who already left Western Caravan six months earlier.
"In my mind I was thinking, 'I'll hook up with Elana. She'll play hot fiddle, I'll play guitar,'" remembered Smith. "We didn't even think about singing, so it wasn't a complete notion. So, I met her out in Colorado. We were going to go to Texas right away, but I had this friend in California who had a beach house we could rent for $300 a month. Right down there on Pacific Beach in San Diego."
Began As Street Musicians
Initially a duo, and later joining with bassist T.C. Cyran, Fremerman and Smith practiced hard and began playing for tips in San Diego's Balboa Park. Fremerman, who had occasionally played as a street musician since her teen years, considered sidewalk performing a "very honest transaction." "You can see what people are enjoying, what they're electrified by, and what they keep walking by. So, I think that helped us build a crowd-pleasing repertoire in a no-pressure environment."
Encouraged by members of established swing bands Asleep At The Wheel and High Noon, the Hot Club moved to Austin after a year in California and quickly found themselves set up with a booking agent, a contract with Hightone Records, and a new member, Billy Horton on upright bass. Horton's love of vintage equipment dictated the sound of the band's first two albums, Swingin' Stampede and Tall Tales. But Horton, a renowned roots-music performer and producer in his own right, found that the Hot Club's nonstop touring limited his ability to take on a myriad of side projects, including a highly regarded band he performed in with his brother Bobby. His departure paved the way for Jake Erwin's arrival.
For the Record . . .
Members include T.C. Cyran (group member, 1996-1997), upright bass; Jake Erwin (joined group, 2001), upright bass; Elana Fremerman , fiddle, vocals; Billy Horton (group member, 1997-2001), upright bass; Whit Smith , guitar, vocals.
Group formed in San Diego, CA, 1996; released cassette Western Clambake on their own HCC label,
1997; signed with independent roots label Hightone, 1998; recorded for Hightone, 1998-2003; appeared on Garrison Keillor's radio program A Prairie Home Companion, 2003.
Awards: Western Music Association, Western Swing Band of the Year, 2003.
Addresses: Record company— Hightone Records, 220 4th St., #101, Oakland, CA 94607, website: http://www.hightone.com. Booking— Paul Lohr, The Agency Group, 2505 21st Ave. S., Ste. 302, Nashville, TN 37212, phone: (615) 383-2833, e-mail: [email protected] theagencygroup.com. Publicist— Lance Cowan, phone: (615) 331-1710, e-mail: [email protected] Web-site— Hot Club of Cowtown Official Website: http://www.hotclubofcowtown.com.
Best known as one of Hightone-label rockabilly artist Kim Lenz's original Jaguars, the Oklahoma-born Erwin has slapped bass with legendary rockabilly figure Ronnie Dawson, the Asylum Street Spankers, Wayne Hancock, and Dave Stuckey's Rhythm Gang, where he first met Whit Smith. According to Smith, Erwin helped Hot Club achieve its renowned fat sound, the secrets of which he gladly revealed. "We get a pretty big sound for a three-piece band. For one [thing], Jake plays with gut strings, which has sort of a boomp, boomp, boomp—that gives us a big attack right away. Then he slaps the bass, so he's getting a percussive sound as well. Then, I'm playing four-to-the-bar rhythm, but I'm changing the chord shaping, the voicing, sometimes every beat, sometimes every other beat. … Then Elana is chunking on her fiddle along with the singing. … So, everyone's doing almost twice the work, just as if we were a larger band."
Fremerman and Smith agreed that Erwin pumped new life into the Hot Club, with the former declaring that "Whit, Jake, and I are now focused on making records that sound good and will get played rather than something that fetishizes a certain era's acoustics." Their first step in this new sonic direction came with their 2000 release Dev'lish Mary. It took the Hot Club two more years to conjure up material for 2002's Ghost Train, a project that cemented the creative methods of the trio's two vocalists.
"We mostly create individually and then come together and ask the others 'Can you do this?'" explained Smith. "On 'Secret Of Mine,' Elana wrote this little instrumental interlude and told me what to play. Then, on 'It Stops With Me,' which has a Russian or Gypsy melody, I wrote that and told her what to play. But she still had to put the delivery, feeling, and the soul into it or the tune wouldn't have turned out as well as it did."
A Staple of the Hightone Roster
Town by town, the constantly touring Hot Club earned a reputation as one of the tightest, most danceable roots outfits of recent vintage. Their appeal has been spread by successful stints on National Public Radio's A Prairie Home Companion and the British Broadcasting Corporation's Later with Jools Holland. Roots music was on the rise in the first years of the 21st century, and Fremerman felt that with the success of the old-time-oriented O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, "we're in the right point of the tide." "Because," she explained, "You have bands like Nickel Creek who are doing well, the Dixie Chicks have gone acoustic, and those are all very nice omens for us."
Despite an economic downturn that affected the whole music industry, the small Hightone label continued to give the group creative free rein with its recorded projects. Working with such Texas production aces as Gurf Morlix and Lloyd Maines, the group crafted a smart and affecting body of work that received respectable amounts of radio airplay on stations featuring the new Americana format.
Responding to fan criticism that their recorded music didn't crackle with the energy that their in-person shows had, the band recorded a live set at Austin's Continental Club in 2003. Capitalizing on such reworked standards as "Deed I Do," "Ida Red," "Pennies From Heaven," and "Orange Blossom Special," the 13-song Continental Stomp provided an energetic document of the group's jazzy, virtuoso improvisations and of the seemingly mind-reading musical interplay between Smith and Fremerman.
Awaiting the day when mainstream tastes turned further in their favor, the Hot Club of Cowtown continued to savor the quirks of life on the road. "We eat every meal together, we drive until two in the morning, and we spend a lot of time just staring into convenience food aisles," Fremerman laughed. "People never believe it when they see you on the Grand Ole Opry and your skirt is twinkling with gold sequins, but the reality is that you're spending a lot of time at the Exxon TigerMart." By way of explaining the band's continued commitment to their sound, the ever-determined Fremerman repeated one of fiddle legend Johnny Gimble's favorite sayings: "'You get paid to travel and the playing is free.' It rips the fabric of other parts of your life, but if you believe in it, you can't help yourself."
Western Clambake (self-released demo), HCC, 1997.
Swingin' Stampede, Hightone, 1998.
Tall Tales, Hightone, 1999.
Dev'lish Mary, Hightone, 2000.
Ghost Train, Hightone, 2002.
Continental Stomp, Hightone, 2003.
Goodman, David, Modern Twang: An Alternative Country Music Guide & Directory, Dowling, 1999.
Country Standard Time, September 2002.
"Hot Club of Cowtown," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (November 15, 2003).
Hot Club of Cowtown Official Website, http://www.hotclubofcowtown.com (November 15, 2003).
Additional information was obtained from an interview with Hot Club of Cowtown, from which all quotations used in this biography were drawn.
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