Texans are rightly chauvinistic about many things, especially our music. And if there's one style that's indelibly Texan, it's western swing. So how is it that one of the most fascinating new wrinkles within this well-worn genre was formed in New York City? (Get a rope.)
Whatever its origins, the now-Austin-based Hot Club of Cowtown is a worthy inheritor of the mantle once worn by Milton Brown and Bob Wills. Yet unlike the classic western swing groups of yesteryear, which were all big bands, Hot Club is a mere three pieces, a living example of Robert Fripp's concept of the small, mobile and intelligent unit. Perhaps because of its easy portability, the trio travels the nation by van -- it's one of the busiest touring acts outside the state -- spreading a revised gospel in which C&W meets jazz at the OK Corral.
The name just about says it all. The "Hot Club" bit alludes to the gypsy jazz of guitarist Django Reinhardt and fiddler Stephane Grappelli, whose free-flying music was all the rage in Paris following World War I. And "Cowtown" is either that metaphorical western outpost in the mind or, more specifically, Fort Worth, where Wills first started assembling his Texas Playboys. True to form, Hot Club's music straddles the space between the two musical locales. Guitarist Whit Smith is a fleet-fingered stylist who swings the tune into existence, allowing fiddler Elana Fremerman to take the melody on flights of fancy. As the style predicates, virtuosity is part of Hot Club's charm.
The trio's repertory includes Tin Pan Alley standards, swing jazz classics, Wills tunes, material penned by both Smith and Fremerman, and much more. Sure, there's a strong whiff of nostalgia to what the group does, but there's also enough progressive thinking to imbue Hot Club's sound with a distinct freshness. Just check out what the group does with Hoagy Carmichael's "Stardust" on its third album, Dev'lish Mary: In short, Hot Club injects new life into the old warhorse.
So while Hot Club of Cowtown's migration to the Lone Star State is akin to bringing coals to Newcastle, what they do with western music is still delightful enough to warm the heart of even the most pedantic old-timer.