Country Music

Saddle Up for a Swinging and Wild Time in Cowtown

The swingers and jazzbos of the Hot Club of Cowtown: Whit Smith, Elana James, and Jake Erwin.
The swingers and jazzbos of the Hot Club of Cowtown: Whit Smith, Elana James, and Jake Erwin. Photo by Dave Creaney/Courtesy of Conqueroo PR
Membership in the Hot Club of Cowtown is pretty exclusive. In fact, if there were having custom Cowboy-themed Nudie shirts made for members, they’d only need to order three: For Elana James (vocals/violin), Whit Smith (vocals/guitar), and Jake Erwin (bass)

The modern band which mixes the hot jazz and western swing genres of yesteryear has a new album coming out next month with Wild Kingdom (Gold Strike Records). Smith says it features the most originals of any of their efforts, with the James-written songs trending more toward western swing and tales of romance gone good and bad (the wordplay-based “My Candy,” bad-relationship listing “Near Mrs.,” “Rodeo Blues”) or a spirituality (“Last Call,” “Before the Time of Men”).

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Gold Strike record cover
There’s also covers of the Scottish folk song “Loch Lomond” (with its familiar lyrics “You take the high road/And I’ll take the low road”) and the Les Paul/Mary Ford standard “How High the Moon.” In addition to the core trio, guests include Damien Llanes (drums), Joe Kerr (piano), and Oliver Rajamani (table/percussion).

The tunes written by Smith have a more quirky, psychological quality: “Caveman” – about a prehistoric man whose cave art finds acclaim among his contemporaries, and the life reflecting/time traveling-themed “Ways of Escape.”

“We always have one foot in the camp of our original [musical] charter. It still has that swing feel. Where we get adventurous is in the lyrics,” Smith says. “They’re not antique! It’s not political, but it’s not moon, spoon, and June either. They were fun to write.”

In “Billy the Kid,” Smith tells the oft-told tale of the famed outlaw, but from the perspective of his dying eyes and wandering mind. It was inspired by a book that Smith read, a dual biography of the Kid and lawman Pat Garrett called To Hell on a Fast Horse by Mark Lee Gardner, along with another book about the Kid’s trial.

“I wanted something haunting. These newer history books are able to have a lot more information. Because as I read the book…I kind of liked the guy. He didn’t strike me as sicko or sociopath,” Smith says. “I had some sympathy for him. His life could have turned out completely differently had it not been for his growing up in such difficult circumstances.”

That’s the legend of Billy the Kid. As the legend of the Hot Club of Cowtown goes, the band got its start in New York City in 1994. That’s when James put an ad in the Village Voice alternative newspaper stating her music interests and looking to join a band. Smith answered, and the duo formed a larger orchestra, then pared back down to a duo.

They added a bassist and chose got a new name that they still carry today. And in 1997 they migrated to Austin, undoubtedly an area more sympathetic to the sounds they were making. “Hot Club of Cowtown” pays tribute to their two main musical influences: the 1920s/’30s “hot jazz” as played by guitarist Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappeli (as well as their band, Quinette du Hot Club de France), and the “Cowtown” western swing of acts like Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys.

Their debut record Swingin’ Stampede came out in 1998, and others followed. Erwin joined in 2003 in time to appear on a live record, and more releases, tours, and TV/festival/radio appearances followed. Wild Kingdom is their eleventh studio release.

The Hot Club of Cowtown have headlined hundreds of shows, but also served as an opener. And none more offbeat than a 2004 tour with Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson that exclusively played minor league baseball parks around the country.

“That was fantastic, easily one of the best touring or concert experiences of my career or life. They treated us really well,” Smith recalls. “We were jamming backstage one time and Willie heard us play a song and told us we should do as the encore. We told him that we were the opening act and didn't get an encore. And Willie said ‘You do tonight! And he's the boss!’” From then on, the Red Headed Stranger would have temporary membership in the Hot Club as they covered “Please Don't Talk About Me When I’m Gone.”

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Whit Smith, Jake Erwin, and Elana James.
Photo by Dave Creaney/Courtesy of Conqueroo PR
Their encounters with the more private Dylan were fewer, though James would occasionally perform a song with the Bard of Hibbing and his band. But Smith found Dylan to be very open and interested in the many genres of music, especially the old-timey kind of Smith’s band. “He was way into Bing Crosby at the time, so we were talking about that!” Smith laughs.

When the band relocated to Austin, it certainly was not the city of ten years before…or would be ten years later. And still a far cry from what the city has become now. Smith today gives credit to traditional country artist Don Walser for introducing them to the right people. He adds that because the group was already an established band, they could start gigging and recording immediately.

They played everywhere from the Continental Club to Guero’s Taco Bar, and Smith was impressed to find the city so immersed in music. And that could have people drinking beer and dancing and listening to live bands all over town even in the afternoon on a weekday.

As for Houston, the band had a September 15 show here that is being rescheduled for some time next spring. Smith says that the band has not played the city as often as they used to or would like to in recent years, but plans on changing that.

“I do have a few crazy stories, but they would eat up your entire article! And they might not be appropriate!” he laughs. “But I have a lot of good memories about Houston – and a little crazier than some other cities!”

The Hot Club of Cowtown are as of now scheduled to perform next in Houston on April 19 at the Dosey Doe Big Barn, 25911 I-45 North. For more on the band, visit
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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.
Contact: Bob Ruggiero