hot club
The Hot Club of Cowtown: (from left) Elana James, Whitt Smith, Jake Erwin. ‘If you like western swing, this is western swing,’ Smith says of the band’s new Bob Wills tribute album, What Makes Bob Holler.

The Hot Club of Cowtown Hollers About Bob

Long-awaited tribute to the king of western swing does all parties proud

By David McGee

For western swing fans long awaiting the Hot Club of Cowtown doing for Bob Wills what Asleep At The Wheel has done so well on multiple occasions in its long history, the wait is over. February brought forth What Makes Bob Holler, from Elana James, Whitt Smith and Jake Erwin, in the form of 14 evocative tracks recorded in a whirlwind two days at London’s Specific Sound studios this past spring during a short break in the band’s England tour.

True to the Hot Club ethos, expect the unexpected: though familiar Wills fare dots What Makes Bob Holler, the tunestack is rounded out with some wonderful numbers heretofore the province of hardcore Wills aficionados.

As for the better known numbers, consider an exquisitely beautiful rendering of the aching instrumental, “A Maiden’s Prayer,” with James taking a swoon inducing fiddle lead; an evocative instrumental take on “Faded Love,” featuring James’s crying fiddle complemented by one of Smith’s tasty, multi-textured guitar solos on the Gibson L-5; a tight, driving, joyous eruption on “Stay a Little Longer” keyed by Erwin’s thumping bass, Smith’s sprightly lead vocal and warm harmonizing with James on the choruses, and wild, exuberant fiddle and guitar soloing; a midtempo take on “Oklahoma Hills” that allows James to underscore the homesick quality of Woody Guthrie’s lyrics to a degree not often found in the many renditions of this classic; a breathtaking romp through “Big Balls in Cowtown,” notable as much for James’s fleet, flawless fiddling as for Smith’s joyous, rhythmic vocal and tart picking; a graceful, swaying take on the bittersweet “Time Changes Everything” featuring Smith and James in sensitive duet mode.

Hot Club of Cowtown, ‘Big Ball’s in Cowtown’ live at the Culver City Music Festival, Culver City, CA, August 12, 2010. This Bob wills number, written by Hoyle Nix, is on the Hot Club’s What Makes Bob Holler album.

One of the best of the lesser-known numbers is “It’s All Your Fault,” which was the B side of Wills’s 1941 single “Dusty Skies.” The great Cindy Walker, who looms large in the Wills legend, penned both songs. But where the Wills version favors a Dixieland swing feel complete with a clarinet wailing behind Leon McAullife’s genial lead vocal and a tenor sax taking a hefty solo along the way, the Hot Club remains true to the first part of its name and gives it a ‘30s Django feel in Smith’s rapid-fire soloing and James’s jittery fiddling complementing her sunny, bouncy vocal. (Oddly enough, Smith says he was introduced to the song not by Wills but rather via a 1954 recording of the song by country/rockabilly artist Wade Ray and only picked up on Wills’s version (Wills recorded it twice) much later. “Wade Ray slows it down and makes it very swinging--‘swinging’ is not the best word to use for it because a lot of people interpret it differently. He slowed it down and had a much wider gait, you might say; more exaggerated swing. He fattened it up and it sounded really good and soulful. Then he plays the fiddle solo. So that’s where I first heard that song; I didn’t hear Wills’s version until I got that the San Antonio Rose box set that Bear Family put out in 2000.”

Still another departure from the Wills text comes by way of “Smith’s Reel,” which was recorded several times by Wills, and is included on Volume 6 of the Tiffany Transcriptions. But Wills takes his version(s) at a deliberate pace, and McAullife adds a verse of square dance lyrics to boot. Not so the Hot Club, which takes it at a breakneck pace, dispensing with lyrics entirely in favor of a headlong rush to the finish. “Elana has a penchant for high speed, so off we went,” Smith said in a recent interview from his new Austin home (‘right around the corner from the Continental Club!’). I do love those melodies, though.”

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Elana James, Whitt Smith and Jake Erwin in full swing: ‘If you like western swing, this is western swing,’ Smith says of the band’s new Bob Wills tribute album. (Photo: Kelly Kerr)

Last time the Hot Club of Cowtown came around with a new album, 2009’s Wishful Thinking, the veteran trio was coming off a five-year sabbatical in which the members went their separate ways, with James making the most high-profile leap of the three by joining Bob Dylan’s touring band and in 2007 releasing a memorable self-titled solo album as remarkable for the strength of her songwriting as it is for her captivating, classic pop-styled vocals. Reuniting around Wishful Thinking, the band picked up where it had left off in 2003’s Lloyd Maines-produced live album, Continental Stomp, which 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 Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli, whose version seemed to be the model for the Hot Club's treatment), and a blistering charge through "Orange Blossom Special."

Hot Club of Cowtown, ‘Oklahoma Hills,’ May 27, 2009. The Woody and Jack Guthrie song is included on the band’s What Makes Bob Holler tribute album.

Such wide-ranging fare was not atypical for the Hot Club, as Wishful Thinking also featured an eclectic mix of styles, freewheeling playing in multiple styles and thoroughly engaging vocal work by James and Smith, the latter providing a muscular tenor to the former’s sunny alto. In fact, Continental Stomp and Wishful Thinking recall nothing so much as the Tiffany Transcriptions recordings made by Wills and the Texas Playboys in 1946-47. Designed for quick distribution to radio stations, the Tiffany sides were 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," Nat King Cole's "Straighten Up and Fly Right" and Peggy Lee-Dave Barbour's "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 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, and even in the assured electric mandolin work of Tiny Moore.

In a September 2009 interview with this publication, James and Smith both gushed about the impact of the Tiffany Transcriptions on the Hot Club’s modus operandi.

"That's our favorite, all of us, we love those so much and we listened to them for years and years," James said. "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," Smith said. "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."

Hot Club of Cowtown, ‘Time Changes Everything,’ live at Oxford’s The Cellar, October 29, 2010. The Tommy Duncan song is included on the band’s What Makes Bob Holler tribute album.

“Spontaneity” is what the London sessions for What Makes Bob Holler were all about. Had there been no break in the tour schedule, had the studio in question been unavailable, this Wills tribute would still be nothing more than a Whitt Smith pipe dream. But the gods were aligned in the Hot Club’s favor. The band recorded only a few more songs than are on the final album, drawing from the deep well of Wills numbers they have played live for years, save for the humorous swing tune “The Devil Ain’t Lazy,” which Smith has performed only outside of the Hot Club until now. The repertoire was consciously chosen to reflect, as Smith says, “the western side of western swing.

“Many people, when they think of Bob Wills, think of western. Only a minority of western swing fans realizes that there’s an actual swing and an actual jazz side to that. So we wanted to make a Bob Wills tribute record that was obviously for the king of western swing, Bob Wills, but we also didn’t want to alienate anyone. If you like western swing, this is western swing. If you wanted to go get pizza and someone served you some incredible sushi alongside of it, no matter how much you like sushi, you want pizza. That’s what we were serving.

“We’re aware, as are a lot of people, that Bob Wills recorded songs like ‘Big Beaver’ or ‘Take the ‘A’ Train,’ those swinging numbers from that ‘30s swing dance era, and he loved doing that. But obviously he’s famous for doing western tunes. His own compositions are pretty western sounding.”

Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys, ‘Stay A Little Longer,’ by Tommy Duncan and Bob Wills, from the 1945 film Lawless Empire, directed by Vernon Keays, starring Charles Starrett as The Durango Kid. The Hot Club of Cowtown’s version of the song is the final track on its Bob Wills tribute, What Makes Bob Holler.

At Specific Sound the band actually lost a day of recording simply to getting set up to record. Their hoped-for three days of sessions were reduced to two 12-hour days because “we had to shape the room so we could sit in the middle and get some ambience but not too much. It took a little while to get the room sound together and we chose a couple of mics, moved things around and the next thing you know, six hours has gone by.”

Further complicating matters was Smith coming down with a case of laryngitis. “We had to change all our keys; on the majority of the songs I did we don’t actually do them in the keys that are on that record. But I could barely talk. They shot me full of steroids and my voice came back, but I didn’t have any range. That’s why I sound a little husky and a little low of some of those things. I was like an NFL player--put a little cortisone in the knee and off he goes. We had worked up ‘Faded Love’ and ‘Right or Wrong,’ but we just couldn’t get to them all. If we’d had five days…”

In the abovementioned 2009 interview, Smith already had his mind set on the band doing a Bob Wills tribute album, even though Wishful Thinking was brand-new and the focus of their touring efforts. Two years later, with another new album and tour to support it, he’s already looking ahead to the next Hot Club project.

“I know personally I want to write songs similar to what I wrote on Ghost Train [ed. note: the band’s acclaimed 2002 album]. Sort of, well, if you could have Cole Porter join Bob Wills and, I don’t know, maybe some of the darker, more contemporary lyrics but remain abstract so that it’s still fun--I want to challenge myself to do more of that. We can’t help it--we love western swing, we love jazz tunes, and we write tunes that tend to be in that style. So that would probably be the next record.”

The Hot Club of Cowtown’s What Makes Bob Holler is available at www.amazon.com

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