Montana Public Radio

The Hot Club Of Cowtown: Where 'Country Meets Jazz And Chases The Blues Away'

Jun 25, 2020

The Hot Club of Cowtown’s stylistic genesis–as well as title–stems from the realization that the great heritage of strings (guitars and violins) originates mutually with the Manouche gypsies of France and the no-less virtuosic hillbilly pickers and fiddlers of Oklahoma and Texas….Together for over 21 years and fourteen albums, the threesome of high-heeled violinist Elana James, guitarist Whit Smith and bassist Jake Erwin showed from the beginning that jazz and country music could exist together on the same page, a highly commendable achievement if ever there was one.”
-Will Friedwald, Wall Street Journal

In 1994 in New York City, Elana James placed an ad in the music section of the Village Voice looking to join a band, and Whit Smith answered it. Since then, they've traveled the world, whipping up a brew of energy, joie de vivre, and a respect for tradition. After a move to Austin, the band’s lineup solidified in 2001 with the arrival of bassist Jake Erwin. John Floridis speaks with James about the trio's years of music-making and side projects - musical and otherwise. (When she's not playing music, James is a practiced horse wrangler, packer and guide who works seasonally in Montana's backcountry.)

The Hot Club of Cowtown's original songwriting and technical fireworks are infused with improvisational joy. Along the way, they've also paid explicit tribute to their roots. What Makes Bob Holler arrived in 2011 with Western swing standards made famous by Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys. Rendezvous in Rhythm was released in 2013, a collection of American Songbook standards and Gypsy-influenced hot jazz in the style of Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli. In 2016, Midnight on the Trail re-imagined cowboy ballads, traditional Western swing, and songs by Gene Autry, Cindy Walker, Johnny Mercer, Bob Wills, Tommy Duncan and others.

“Unfussy and unpretentious, their blend of down-home melodies and exuberant improvisation harks back to a lost era of so-called western swing. When they plunge into "Orange Blossom Special" your thoughts turn not so much to runaway trains as to a B-52 tearing up a runway.”
-Clive Davis, The Times (London)

(Broadcast: Musician's Spotlight,  2/18/20 and 6/23/20. Listen on the radio Tuesdays, 7 p.m., or via podcast.)