september 2009

Hot Club of Cowtown: (from left) Whit Smith, Elana James, Jake Irwin: 'I think we all understand that this special quality is something that doesn't grow on trees. I feel there's more of an appreciation for each other this time around in a way,' says James.

Wishful Thinking No More
Hot Club of Cowtown Ends Sabbatical In a Big Way

By David McGee

When you say "the spirit of Bob Wills lives on" today, the natural inclination of fans of the King of Western Swing is to think, justifiably so, of Grammy-gobbling Asleep At the Wheel and its venerable frontman, Ray Benson. A dutiful steward of the Wills legacy, Benson and his various Wheel aggregates have more than earned the many plaudits and awards bestowed on them through the years.

But also out there, less honored and working on a smaller scale—as in a trio instead of a big band format—but being no less diligent about flying the flag for western swing with solid playing, strong original material supplementing beloved standards, along with imaginative arranging and affecting singing, is the Hot Club of Cowtown. But this bunch, despite leading off its thrilling new album, Wishful Thinking, with a brisk treatment of Wills's "Can't Go On This Way," featuring a hearty vocal and sprightly guitar playing from Whit Smith and some frisky fiddling by Elana James while Jake Irwin clicks and clacks on the standup bass, explores different geographies than does the Wheel, the upshot being a band every bit as distinctive as said Wheel.

It is, after all, the Hot Club, as James notes: "Often in the U.S. the Cowtown part becomes very prominent because we're categorized as a country band here, for a variety of reasons. But there is the Hot Club side of it, too." Yes, and that is where two roads diverge. James is enthralled by gypsy jazz, guitarist Smith's influences incorporate some Django Rheinhardt-style flourishes along with Les Paul, Hank Garland, Eldon Shamblin and those of a panoply of similarly gifted pickers of a certain generation, and so the band often finds itself as much in 1920s Paris as it does in the American southwest of the 1940s, sometimes within the same song—check out James's "Cabiria" on the new album for one such intoxicating blend—and it comes out sounding fresh and original. Or consider the bustling instrumental, "Heart of Romain," inspired by James's admiration for French actor and gypsy jazz enthusiast Romain Duris (The Beat That My Heart Skipped) and Algerian-born, gypsy-descended film director Tony Gatfli, whose 1992 documentary, Latcho Drom, documents gypsies' journey from northwest India to Spain and includes some electrifying authentic gypsy jazz. In "Heart of Romain," James's fiddle evokes the gypsy feel in its minor key flurries and cries, and Smith cuts out on some fleet-fingered Django-style runs, but Irwin's solid, slapping bass bottom never loses its rockabilly friskiness.

"Especially fiddle players but just musicians in general, anyone with a pulse who sees Tony Gatlif's Latcho Drom, it's just spectacular," James said by phone while preparing for a Hot Club tour. "Tony Gatlif has given a lot to a lot of people by documenting those musicians and that kind of music. In a way that song is kind of a tribute back to him, but 'Heart of Romain' is obviously for Romain Duras. It's interesting because in The Beat That My Heart Skipped he goes from being this very scrappy street guy, not exactly a thug but headed in that direction, then he's pulled back by this pianist and a piano into a world of order, and it's classical and traditional. I realized later that in fact that song kind of does the same thing-it starts out as this jazzy, urban improvised process, and as the song goes on it becomes more and more defined, and by the end of it comes into almost a classical kind of coda. I thought that was weird because that's kind of what happens to him in that movie. That's totally out there, but I do love his work and all the stuff he's done with Tony Gatlif. It's great when a cool, young actor is into gypsy music and has done a lot to promote it and make it visible. So it's a little bit related to that, too."

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Hot Club of Cowtown, 'Heart of Romain,' from the band's new Wishful Thinking album, performed at the 2009 Smoky Hill River Festival in Salina, KS. The Elana James-penned song was inspired by French film actor Romain Duris and director Tony Gatlif, both outspoken supporters of gypsy jazz.

Elsewhere, Wishful Thinking finds the band picking up where it left off on record back in 2003, with the Lloyd Maines-produced live album, Continental Stomp, which surprisingly included no original tunes but got along quite well, thank you, by way of items such as a dreamy "Deed I Do," a toe-tapping workout on the Dorothy Fields-Jimmy McHugh evergreen, "I Can't Give You Anything But Love, Baby" (later in the set, the band offers another Fields-McHugh uptempo gem, "Exactly Like You," a 1930 song covered by a host of pop and jazz giants, including, not incidentally, Django Rheinhardt and Stephane Grappelli, whose version seems to be the model for the Hot Club's treatment), and a blistering workout on "Orange Blossom Special." On Wishful Thinking, the covers include, apart from the aforementioned Wills tune, a captivating treatment of Hoagy Carmichael-Stuart Gorrell's "Georgia," a summery, laid-back rendition in which Smith delivers a tender, nuanced reading as he and James weave discrete, yearning solo lines through the arrangement; a blazing hot swing treatment of "Columbus Stockade" lent some added oomph courtesy a new addition to the band's instrumental lineup here, drummer Damien Llanes, laying down a propulsive, driving beat behind James's frenetic fiddling and Smith's speed-picked runs (with a nice stop-time break for a tasty bass solo by Erwin); and a closing beauty in James's seductive, yearning vocal caressing of George and Ira Gershwin's timeless "Someone To Watch Over Me." In addition to "Heart of Romain" and the exotic shuffle "Cabiria" (inspired by James's affection for Federico Fellini, and especially for the director's 1957 film, Nights of Cabiria; the song is considerably more upbeat in tone and sentiments than the film's titular character, a prostitute whose search for love leads only to heartbreak and humiliation; the screenplay became the basis for the Broadway musical, Sweet Charity.), James contributes another original in the curiously festive breakup number, "What You Meant To Me," and collaborates with Smith on the spooky, noir-ish meditation, "One Step Closer" in addition to co-arranging with him a fiery instrumental workout, "The Magic Violin." Smith offers a co-write with Sage Guyton in the bouncy lover's plea, "If You Leave Me," and his own, dramatic coming-of-age chronicle, a solemnly strummed beauty titled "Carry Me Close." And making his way into the Hot Club repertoire for the first time is Tom Waits, whose "The Long Way Home," is lent a clattering arrangement behind James's coy, velvety vocal.

In conception and execution, Wishful Thinking is not an atypical Hot Club of Cowtown album. Its eclectic mix of styles, freewheeling playing and engaging singing recall nothing so much as a particular work of one of the collective Cowtowners' touchstones, Bob Wills's Tiffany Transcriptions, those amazing recordings from 1946-47 made for quick distribution to radio stations, recorded live with no rehearsal, no preplanning, a bunch of supremely talented musicians winging it as per Wills's whims. The material ranged from Wills classics—"Faded Love," "San Antonio Rose," et al.—to Duke Ellington's "Take the 'A' Train," to Nat King Cole's "Straighten Up and Fly Right" to Peggy Lee-Dave Barbour's newly composed standard, "It's a Good Day." In these recordings you can draw a direct line from the evocative fiddling of Jim Joe Holley and Louis Tierney to Elana James's style on the Hot Club recordings, just as you can hear where Whit Smith comes from in the guitar stylings of Eldon Shamblin and Junior Bernard, even in the assured electric mandolin work of Tiny Moore.

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Bob Wills & the Texas Playboys, 'Ida Red'
From the film Blazing
The Western Trail, 1945, a year before the first of the Tiffany Transcriptions sessions. Personnel includes Wills and Joe Holley on fiddle, Noel Boggs on steel, Cameron Hill and Jimmy Wyble on guitar, Millard Kelso (usually on piano) on accordion and vocalist Tommy Duncan.

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'Ida Red,' Elana James, Whit Smith, Jake Irwin at Cafe Nine, New Haven, Connecticut, Jan. 16, 2008

"That's our favorite, all of us, we love those so much and we listened to them for years and years," James says. "That to me is kind of like the Holy Grail of what this kind of music is about. It's really by the seat of their pants, they're playing incredibly tight because they've been touring so much, it has that free and easy, joyful, spontaneous, ineffable quality. If you heard a little bit of that on our record, that's the nicest thing you could say."

"That's actually a fantastic compliment to me, because in my mind-and this would be for all the records-the sound of the Hot Club of Cowtown was always the sound of the Tiffany Transcriptions," asserts Smith, who now makes him home in Wills's old home base of Tulsa, not far from where Wills used to hold forth at Cain's Ballroom. (Hot Club bassist Jake Irwin is a native of the Oil Capitol). "My whole goal was that mix, that free mix—they do an old-timey fiddle tune, then they'd do 'What Is This Thing Called Love,' a Cole Porter song, you know? I have all of those, and that was my introduction to western swing. I had never heard of Bob Wills, then someone gave me one of those Tiffany Transcriptions. Even when I was a rock 'n' roller I always liked live recordings, that loose energy, that spontaneity. Always loved that."

But, as the advance publicity for Wishful Thinking trumpets, this is the Hot Club's first appearance on record in five years. That's fine for PR purposes, but it's not as if the basic trio was defunct all that time until reassembling for a new album. There was indeed some individual stepping out—Elana James released a wonderful, self-titled solo album in 2007, two years after she was the first female in 30 years to join Bob Dylan's band on tour; Whit Smith was out on his own with Whit Smith's Hot Jazz Caravan; and in 2006 Smith began sitting in with James and her Hot Hot Trio (which included Beau Sample and Luke Hill); then the Hot Club proper reunited for a few shows in 2006-2007, notably at the Fuji Rock Festival and on a jaunt to Australia. Before going their separate ways, the Hot Club, formed in 1997 (with Bill Horton on bass, later replaced by Jake Irwin), made its debut on record in 1998 with Swingin' Stampede, then cut three more impeccable studio albums (1999's Tall Tales, 2000's Dev'lish Mary, 2002's Ghost Train) and the Continental Stomp live album. Reviews were uniformly ecstatic, as were audiences.

thumbnailWhit Smith, at Dingwalls in London, May 28: 'In my mind-and this would be for all the records—the sound of the Hot Club of Cowtown was always the sound of Bob Wills's Tiffany Transcriptions.'

So why the sabbatical? Well, nothing is ever simple, not even this explanation.

JAMES: The truth is that the band ended in 2004. I think Whit wanted to do other things, and I had sunk everything into the Hot Club of Cowtown and was just totally into it. We had just started having a lot of good things happening to us-nice press, good tours in the U.K. and the U.S. Anyway, the band disbanded because I think maybe Whitt had had enough and he wanted to try to do his own thing. My record and the tour with Bob Dylan, those were things that came about after the band had disbanded. It was weird, because you know how people say when a door slams in your face, a window opens. Looking back, that window when we weren't playing together was very fruitful because it forced me to do my own thing. I got hired by Bob Dylan, which was very inspiring, and after that I thought I needed to make my own record and start my own band, because I missed that format and I love to do that. That's when I did the record.

"Basically we all kept busy doing different things. I had my trio, and a few years later I got invited to go on another Bob Dylan tour, opening for him. I loved playing with Whitt; I've always loved playing with him. So I asked him if he would come basically play in my band for this tour, and he said yes. I knew I would be most comfortable having him there with me. Sure enough, we had a fantastic time, it was a great tour, and every since then we continued playing together. At first it was under my name, because we had a lot of shows, then we got Jake on bass, so once the three of us were reunited it was ludicrous to continue billing that as me because it felt like the Hot Club of Cowtown again. So I shelved my own name for a time and we reunited officially. And that was more than a year and a half ago, but it took all this time to make a record and book the shows, so right now we're starting to see the fruition of stuff that started a few years ago."

SMITH: After the last record we made we were busy for a year promoting that, and then we hit a rough patch and everyone was ready to go their separate ways for awhile. We had really lousy, caricature bad music business people. Then we ended up going our separate ways as a band, so no one's thinking really about making a record after doing that. Then, as the months went by, I started working with Elana, regardless of everything that had happened, and then Jake started working with her, and then we started recording our new record. I don't know; time flies. We weren't really aware of the time; it just kind of went by.

"You know you're always wanting to make new recordings, put new stuff out, people are always asking for new stuff. Over a year ago we started. The Wishful Thinking album is pretty much three recording sessions, each with the idea that we were making a record, but we did it over a long period of time, as opposed to the records in the past where we'd book a couple of weeks and go knock it out. So we started putting stuff together as it came together, and that took about a year as well, especially...I mean the record was ready to go last spring, or something, but they just take forever to find someone to promote it. It takes awhile, the whole process. It came out in England in May, and they had their masters and stuff in February. Can't explain why it takes so long. But I'm looking forward to making another one."

Elana James: 'Often in the U.S. the Cowtown part becomes very prominent because we're categorized as a country band here, for a variety of reasons. But there is the Hot Club side of it, too.' (Photo by Jason Baldwin)

Your faithful friend and narrator mentions to James as to how a number of young bands have cropped up in those years Hot Club was away, doing a Hot Club thing, but not nearly as well as the originals. Though it wouldn't make sense that it would be so, one wonders if the trio maybe thought they should come back and show the pretenders how it's done in the big leagues of western/hot swing.

James laughs. "Oh no, no, no!" After collecting herself, though, she explains how for her part, being out on her own underscored for her how difficult it is to find other musicians who share Hot Club passions and proficiency. "It is very, very hard to find people who play what we do, what we love and how we do it. You couldn't put it down on paper. Each person in this band is insane in their own killer way. When people are performing on stage, you don't always see the whole story. Every band has its own strange idiosyncrasies, but at the end of the day, I think when we three get up on the stage there's something we each share that you can't put into words but it's telegraphed to the audience. To me the real measure of that is when you've finished a show, you can see on faces in the audience how they've been affected, if there's been an emotional exchange or impact. I think the three of us also feel that no matter how many notes you play, if you did some kind of cool inversion, ultimately that doesn't matter at all. It's really the emotional transformation of the people you're playing for that matters. You can't quantify it."

Smith takes a more philosophical approach to the issue, basically seconding James's response about finding compatible musical cohorts and musing about the comfort factor of playing with musicians whose thoughts you can read without even trying hard. "There's a familiarity and a wisdom that comes from being around the same people doing our job for so long. Starting to feel like an old salt. Musically, I'm becoming more of the artist I wanted to sound like, still got a long way to go, but definitely I'm on the right track. Elana, especially, has started to decide what she likes in music and how she wants to demonstrate that more than she used to. She used to just kind of go with the flow and now she kind of wants to tell us where the flow is going to go next.

"So you get greater conflicts and more compromises, but then again you're getting something that's more of everybody. There's good and there's bad in that."

(from left): Smith, James, Irwin: 'There's a familiarity and a wisdom that comes from being around the same people doing our job for so long. Starting to feel like an old salt,' says Smith.

Still, the Hot Club may not have been strictly on the shelf for five years as far as live music, but as a studio entity, yes. So when they began thinking about making a new record, what came up in discussions about its makeup? "I just wanted it to be something that expressed what was inside of us and whatever that turned out to be, it was okay. In the band I tend to be the one who's more pushing us to maybe try slightly different things, things that are related to strict western swing or hot jazz that are, put a toe out a little bit further," James says. "Our audience can handle that, and I think artistically I like to do that. I listen to a lot of contemporary music and there's certain things that I hear and feel that don't necessarily fit into western swing-and they shouldn't, you know. On this record it was important for me to write at least half of it, which I did, and Whitt wrote a lot of songs, too. We actually recorded a lot of stuff, and not all of it went onto the record. The originals are some of my favorite ones-I really like 'Reunion,' I really like Whit's 'Carry Me Close,' and again it comes down to taste. There are a lot of people who played way better than I do, but I feel there's a common agreement about what's tasteful and what's sort of classy, and I think that has shaped the record too."

When a band enlivens cover songs so well, it has literally millions of tunes to choose from when it starts recording or touring, and beyond that it has members who also happen to be top-drawer songwriters as well. Smith ascribes a delicate process of natural selection in the studio as being central to the finished work. Much as James characterizes an audience response to the live music as "something you can't quantify," so does Smith make the same analogy in breaking down how he and his mates come to agreement on what's best for an album.

"I wrote two or three that I just didn't think were ready when we were recording," he notes. "We even recorded them, would make rhythm tracks or start trying things. Hopefully you have good perspective and you can sit back and say, 'You know, that's just not good enough. It's not ready.' Then the same with choosing standards, and songs you're going to be doing in the show, the ones where you're getting good feedback from the crowd, putting your own mark on it, you try those. That's what happened with 'Georgia.' We didn't think we would record a song like 'Georgia On My Mind,' and yet one afternoon I had two other songs that really weren't ready, I didn't feel they were strong. So I said, 'Well, we've been playing 'Georgia' at shows; let's try it.' Sounded good. So it's kind of a mix. You're trying to write songs, sometimes you're ready, sometimes you're just on the verge of ready, sometimes you don't know if you're ready until you've done it. And then there's the ones you want to do and you have to ask yourself...I mean, there were some songs I wanted to put on the record that we recorded, but we'd listen back and go, 'That's just not good enough.' Just not right. Hard to put your finger on. So the record ends up being a collection of what you felt was the strongest stuff at the time when they closed the door and said, That's it.'"

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Tom Waits, 'The Long Way Home,' the original version, covered by Hot Club of Cowtown on Wishful Thinking

On an album with songs by Gershwin and Hoagy Carmichael, it's interesting that a Tom Waits song makes the cut. James succeeds in making her wistful vocal stand apart from a similar approach taken by Norah Jones, and the wistful arrangement leaves ample room for yearning and anticipation both. Waits has always considered himself as belonging to a line of American pop songwriters, the architects of the Great American Songbook, that began with Irving Berlin and most certainly includes Gershwin, Carmichael, Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer, Harold Arlen and others. The inclusion of his "The Long Way Home" was, however, not a sly way of the Hot Club pointing out this fact. Much simpler than that.

"We weren't trying to put him in any kind of pantheon," James says. "I happened to hear that song through a friend of mine, who used to play with me. I never really listened to Tom Waits, but I listened to that song and I just couldn't stop listening to it. I played it over and over and over. Something about the sweetness of the sentiment and the way his voice sang it was a very moving combination. It had these beautiful, dreamy elements of this melody floating over a primal kind of pulse—it was incredible, it just really touched me, but it took a lot of convincing to get them to do it. Finally, we started putting it together. People do love that song and I'm really glad it's on the record. We're about to send him a copy, because we licensed it, obviously, but we've never had any communication with him. But I have a lot of respect for him and anybody who could write a song like that. It's beautiful."

Even now, so early in Wishful Thinking's history, James and Smith admit to looking ahead. Smith talks about wanting to make "a real hard-core western swing record that would be all Bob Wills," if not with Hot Club, then on his own. He's also contemplating "a jazz guitar record, or a jazz record that you could almost say this is jazz. I think that would be cool. When I say 'jazz' I pretty much mean '30s, '40s jazz. But when I'm thinking what the next Hot Club record would be, I love that early Willie Nelson, I think I can relate to that better than I can thoroughly relate to Nat King Cole. I mean, I love Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, all that, but I don't think I'm ready to go that far yet. I don't have those chops or skills, I'm not that player yet. I like how Willie Nelson and some of the western guys played very swing, jazz, lounge-oriented kind of stuff, because the instrumentation of our band, and the sound of our band, would do that very well."

For James, it's a more personal sense of homecoming that bodes well for the future. The years have not only been kind in terms of the maturation of each player, but also in cementing the esprit de corps of long-standing commitments. "Coming back into the band, I think I had a more clear understanding of what I like and what I think we do well and where I want to go," she offers. "Maybe it's like being in a marriage in a certain sense, except if you're in a marriage and it isn't working and get a divorce it's harder to get back together than it is in a band! You think, Oh, I can do this on my own, then you go out and get an opportunity to do things your way and you see what you've got and what you don't have. There's a sweetness in coming back together. There are still issues and complications and difficulties, as in any band, but I think we all understand that this special quality is something that doesn't grow on trees. I feel there's more of an appreciation for each other this time around in a way."

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Whit Smith, 'Polka Dots and Moonbeams'

thumbnailAlso available: Whit Smith's instructional DVD, Chordination—Advanced Rhythm Guitar, Vol. 1
Whit Smith is a master rhythm guitarist who teaches you a boatload of ways to swing a rhythm phrase. Here he focuses on his trademark style of moving chords around over simple progressions. You'll learn to play several inversions of passing chords instead of just strumming one chord. Whit starts with "Beaumont Rag" then covers: V-I patterns, fiddle tune accompaniment, swing progressions and minor chords and progressions. He shows you the chords then slows it down so you can follow along. You've never learned so much and had so much fun doing it! "Always wanted to learn swing rhythm guitar? Here's a joyous way to learn from a master!" - Ranger Doug. Recommended. Intermediate/advanced. 60 min.
Buy it at

Check out Elana James's solo album, too...

thumbnailELANA JAMES
Snarf Records

Late of the lamented Hot Club of Cowtown, and more recently of Bob Dylan's touring band, Elana James makes a most impressive solo debut here. Fans of the Hot Club will thrill to James's ongoing embrace of le jazz hot, as well as of folk and country swing, and even more so to the stimulating Grappelli-Django-influenced instrumental dialogues between violinist James and guitarists Dave Biller and Luke Hill. These start at the git-go on her self-penned "Twenty-Four Hours a Day," a driving, '30s-style uptempo kissoff number featuring a startling fiddle run by James that is answered by Biller's robust, speed-picked six-string soloing, which presages a sprightly duet passage between the two instrumentalists. James, whose own well-crafted songs reveal a gift for sing-song melodies that she puts across with frisky, spunky, flapper voice, does a beautiful job in highlighting one of Dylan's finest melodies in "One More Night," rendering it in soft, keening tones that bridge pop and country, emphasizing a yearning quality more suggested than expressed in the original. Whether she's fashioning sweet, romantic fiddle solos in her own instrumental, "Ida's Waltz" (with Biller's guitar in full "Third Man Theme" mode) or mesmerizing as a vocal seductress on two dreamy Duke Ellington covers, "I Got It Bad (And That Ain't Good) (strictly cold shower time in its woozy, bluesy sexuality) and "I Don't Mind" (so coy and come-hither in her faux insouciance), James is never less than compelling. She may have been born in the wrong era, and for that we can all be thankful. Elana James is a timeless wonder. —David McGee

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (
Website Design: Kieran McGee (
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY;, Alicia Zappier (New York)
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024