Hot Club of Cowtown Opens the World’s Songbook

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Hot Club of Cowtown’s sharp and sophisticated Rendezvous in Rhythm injects Western swing and gypsy jams with singular flair. CMT Edge spoke with singer and fiddler Elana James about the buoyant new album, song interpretation and life in Austin.

“We decided to do hot jazz stuff, French stuff we’ve liked for a long time,” James says. “That was the theme of the project, but it’s not like the band is going to become a Django Reinhardt band or something. We just wanted to create this to be a pure project in one vein.”

CMT Edge: You must’ve considered more than the 14 tracks on Rendezvous in Rhythm.

James: Oh, yeah. It’s like the Rod Stewart Songbook, an infinite canon of material. There are many, many more songs that we do live and have for years. You know, [Grammy-winning producer] Lloyd Maines worked with us on it, and the first thing we always do with Lloyd is have him over and play all the songs we’re thinking about. He nixed a few and green-lighted a few, and that’s what created this collection. It’s really just a snapshot in time of stuff we’re into.

Where did you find the opening track, “Ochi Chornye”?

That’s a traditional folk melody. It’s been around for a long time. I love that kind of music, peasant music and old-world folk songs. That’s something that’s always just appealed to me even when I used to play classical music and didn’t know anything about any of this. I’m not even sure how we came upon that song, but it’s just so familiar. It’s almost like even if you’ve never heard it, the song seems familiar. We started playing it live a couple years ago, and people were clamoring for which CD that’s on, and we’re like, “It isn’t.” So we decided we’d better put that out there.

What exactly do you find appealing about peasant music?

I think it’s the same thing with American traditional music. Personally, my taste in traditional music isn’t limited to the United States, and that’s probably true for our entire band. Hungarian folk melodies and Romanian stuff and traditional gypsy music satisfies in the same way that playing “Sally Goodin” and “Ida Red” does. There’s something very rustic and organic about it. My interest and attraction to that music spans different cultures and, in a way, some of these songs are the European equivalent to stuff we might play in Texas.

What drew you to the closing track, “Douce Ambiance”?

Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli wrote that. It’s just a G-minor jammer, but it’s very dramatic, and it’s a song you’ll hear a lot at French gypsy jazz festivals when you’re hanging around jamming with people at the campgrounds. It’s such a fun song to play. Some of these songs are part of the Gypsy jazz scene. We’ve been to the Django Reinhardt festival, and you just wander around from tent to tent and you hear lots of minor swing like “Dark Eyes” and “Douce Ambiance.” It’s like what you’d find if you went to Turkey, Texas, for Bob Wills Day.

Describe the influence Grappelli and Reinhardt have had on you guys.

I think that what Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli did was just play in a passionate and exciting way. … Stephane Grappelli is a peerless titan of this music, the most famous and imaginative swing violinist ever — with the exception of Johnny Gimble, I would have to argue. It’s absolutely timeless and elegant and incredibly exciting and romantic. If you play the violin or guitar, it’s deeply satisfying to play this style. It’s something you never master.

How essential is improvisation to your music?

Oh, it’s a huge part. The tradition of Western swing is to not play the exact same thing every time. The vast majority of what we do is improvised. It’s very, very spontaneous. That’s also what’s enjoyable about this music. We’re not playing the solo from the record. I mean, sometimes I do that because I like certain ideas, but in general, it’s a fully improvised show. That’s the difference between a standard and a cover. We’ve been trying to make that distinction for way longer that I ever would’ve thought.

Explain the distinction.

Did Billie Holiday do covers? Was Louis Armstrong doing covers? No, they’re doing standards from the American songbook or that huge canon of material from early hot jazz. These are songs that are great works of American art and are built to last. They’ve been reinterpreted for generations. Continuing to do that is very different than taking a song and quote-unquote “covering” it. I don’t know, it’s just hard to point that out year after year, but there it is. (laughs)

You recently called “personal ‘I wrote it’” songs a plague on American music. Explain.

There’s a very strong emphasis in Americana about singer-songwriter stuff, the personal aspect of music. There’s nothing wrong with that, but what’s happening is this idea of “I wrote it” somehow has to trump that fact that something is beautiful or moving or emotionally affecting. There’s nothing wrong with playing a beautiful piece of music, whether you wrote it or not. It’s like if you go to an orchestra concert and when the orchestra plays a Beethoven symphony, people aren’t like, “Yeah, but they didn’t write it.”

Why does American traditional music have to suffer through this stigma that if a performer didn’t write a song, they’re somehow penalized, or it’s not as emotionally true? It’s preposterous. I’m not against songwriting. I love writing songs. I’m working on my own solo record that’s mostly my own songs. I just wish there was more room and less emphasis on this idea. Something being new doesn’t necessarily make it better. They don’t write the Bible every 50 years because it’s out of date.

You brought up Lloyd Maines earlier. Describe working with him.

He’s worked with us on several projects in the past. I just love being around him. He’s like a Buddha and has a great personal energy. That’s extremely important if you’re making a record. He’s a calm voice of reason and he’s optimistic and very stable. (laughs) For us, that’s one of his greatest values. Of course, musically, he’s sympathetic to what we do, and he also has a commercial sensibility, so he’s able to tweak and smooth things out in a way that is always helpful. He’s been a guiding hand in our career. Working with him is like having a grownup around. (laughs)

The guy can carry on a conversation and tweak the boards in the same motion.

Yeah, he has a sort of guiding keel within himself, and he can take that into whatever project he’s working on. That’s exactly right. He’s very calm, but he knows how to get great, relaxed performances out of people. That’s so important in the studio. People freak out and get nervous and whatever. Lloyd’s just cool and positive. After everything, he’s just like, “Check it out.” (laughs)

Besides being able to work with Lloyd regularly, what’s most rewarding about being part of the Austin music community?

The very first thing that comes to mind is the people who support us there, like Steve Wertheimer at the Continental Club. We’ve had a regular gig there for over 10 years. After 15 years being in Austin, you start to see who your friends are. He’s one guy who really represents the best about that community. He loves music, and he’s a stand-up guy and he supports what we do, and he’s consistently given us a platform to do it. That’s a golden thing. People in Austin love to come hear live music.

Describe performing at the Continental.

When we first moved to town, I loved playing there, but now I realize even more how it is a magical place and the feeling there is so special. When we play our happy hours there, it’s like conjuring something out of thin air. I can’t explain it without sounding really cheesy, but one of the most satisfying things is playing our free happy hour.

We’ve played the O2 arena, we’ve played the Bob Dylan tour and we’ve played for the State Department. We’ve done many things, but there’s something very sweet and moving about playing those happy hours and having Austinites come out and dance. To be given that opportunity to have that as our home base and have that as our place really has been precious.

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