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Hot Club Of Cowtown: A Texas Trio's Tribute

Hot Club of Cowtown's new album, <em>What Makes Bob Holler</em>, is a tribute to Western swing legend Bob Wills.
Courtesy of the artist
Hot Club of Cowtown's new album, What Makes Bob Holler, is a tribute to Western swing legend Bob Wills.

Several cities have "Hot Clubs" — bands that play so-called "Gypsy jazz" in the tradition of Django Reinhardt. There's the Hot Club of New York, San Francisco and Philadelphia.

Now comes the Hot Club of Cowtown: a trio in Austin, Texas, that specializes in Western swing. Its members have been musical ambassadors for the U.S. State Department, played Lincoln Center and been inducted into the Texas Western Swing Hall of Fame. The trio consists of bassist Jake Ervin, guitarist Whit Smith and fiddler Elana James. Their latest album, What Makes Bob Holler, is a tribute to the late Bob Wills, the so-called King of Western Swing.

Hot Club of Cowtown formed in 1997. The daughter of a classical violinist and an ad man from Kansas City, James studied comparative religion at Barnard College and worked at the Buddhist magazine Tricycle in New York, but found herself seduced away from the writer's life by the fiddle. To watch James perform — her blonde hair flying, elbow pumping, eyes locked on the fingerboard — is to know she chose the right career path.

Smith was a rocker when he discovered Western swing working at New York's Tower Records. His 1946 Gibson archtop guitar, played through a '37 Gibson amp, gives him a distinctly early-jazz sound. After jamming together in New York's East Village for a couple of years, Smith and James moved to Austin in 1997, when they met Erwin and officially started the band. In a town that's particular about its live music, the Hot Club quickly rose to the top.

"There's a lot that you can do with three pieces. It's just enough to kind of make it really sound big and really sound full," Erwin says. "People often say to us, 'It sounds like there's five or six of you up there, and there's only three of you. How do you guys do that?' "

The Right Chemistry

They do it with the guitar playing lots of substitute chords to create movement in the rhythm section — the fiddle playing rhythm when not soloing, plus a percussive, slap-bass style that evokes rockabilly, down to Erwin's slicked-back pompadour.

By 2004, the band was riding high but buckling under the stress of non-stop touring, which led it to temporarily break up. Elana James joined Bob Dylan's band for a spell and cut an album under her own name. Erwin and Smith went off to play with other outfits. As Whit Smith says, the breakup taught them that hot players are interchangeable, but the right chemistry is rare.

"I'd be up there on the stage with first-rate people, but you just felt like pulling a wagon through the mud," he says. "For my birthday in 2008, I asked for my birthday if I could have the Hot Club of Cowtown back, and they said okay."

The trio has been setting stages ablaze since they got back together, making new fans with every live performance. Hot Club of Cowtown is currently on tour, playing its revival of Western swing and early jazz — and somewhere, Bob Wills is hollering.

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As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.