Western swing, Hinduism and steak dinners

Q&A with Elana James of Hot Club of Cowtown


The Hot Club of Cowtown plays Western swing, a unique style of music created when the cowboy songs of eastern Texas rubbed up against the jazz-soaked culture of Louisiana. City Pulse caught up with Elana James, singer and fiddler for the band, in between tour stops in Los Angeles.

Have you been to the Great Lakes Folk Festival before?

We have. This might be our third time. We played as Hot Club at least once, and I’ve played under my own name several years ago. But this is the first time we’ve been there in several years.

What do you remember from past festivals?

The level of the acts was incredibly high. The groups that they pick to perform, it’s a very illustrious group. It’s an honor to be there. I also like these folk festivals that go on in an urban setting. It’s kind of cool. They close off the streets and have stages in different pockets of the downtown area. It’s easier for people to navigate that than a big, wide-open field. It’s just neat. There’s a lot of festivals where you play in a big grassy field, and those are nice too, but there’s something really manageable — especially for little kids  — when you can trot from one stage to the next with relative ease.

Your style is Western swing music? Do you find it hard to be creative while still staying within the genre?

Fortunately for us, the genre of Western swing is, by definition, fresh and creative. It’s really an improvised style. What’s so cool about it is that it’s a uniquely American style of music that encompasses so many different American styles.

When we say Western swing, a lot of people have no idea what that means. What it really means is that it encompasses everything from blues to jazz to folk to American fiddle tunes to pop standards from the pre-World War II era, hoedowns, schottisches, waltzes, all kinds of things. And you jumble all those things together. All of those style have a big improvisatory aspect to them, so it really wouldn’t be Western swing if you weren’t improvising as you were going along.

And that is what really does keep our band fresh, because you can play a song that’s 100 years old, but play a different solo on it every night, and you’re basically pulling something out of the ether that wasn’t there before.

I think about it like cooking. People are still cooking steak now, but that doesn’t mean it’s “retro.” People have been eating steak for thousands of years, but every time you create a meal, it’s fresh and delicious. I really think there’s a strange corollary there that resonates for me.

If something is timeless and moving and emotionally affecting to people, it will never go out of style. I don’t know why more people don’t get into this kind of music.

You’ve been playing as the same trio for years. What does that level of trust do for your performances?

The three of us have played together about 15 years. I guess in band years, that’s almost unheard of. It really does come down to the music — the music wants to play itself and uses us to play it. It’s kind of this weird thing. All three of us play with other people, we do different things, but this band — the three of us together — it’s a special, almost chemical kind of magic that is unique to the three of us. Nobody feels replaceable in this trio.

And with travel — we travel so much and have toured all over the world. You build these muscles, the muscles of going on plane, landing somewhere, getting in a van, driving three hours, being spit out on to a stage in a foreign country and doing a 90-minute show. What is required to do that over the years, that deepens your performance and it deepens your playing because you develop these kind of muscles that would never be necessary if you stay around home and have fun jamming with friends at the local pub.

All three of us, our forte is definitely the live show. There are great studio bands, some bands are really into writing stuff — we do write, and we do make records, I’m really proud of what we do in that respect — but our fans really consider our live show to be our greatest asset.

You like to improvise quite a bit. How different is your set list night to night?

The show is never the same twice. We have a core of tunes that we like to do, but we don’t have a fixed set list. And we often work in new material along with really established stuff, and we try to read the audience too. We take requests sometimes. To me, it’s kind of like a relationship between us and the audience — in the moment of where we are, what the energy is, who we’re playing for, especially if there’s dancing and stuff like that, we try to play to the crowd and adapt the show. It’s not like, “We’re going to do these 20 songs come hell or high water.” It’s never like that. And Whit and I call tunes back and forth, so it’s always different. The shows are like snowflakes.

You’ll be playing several sets at the Great Lakes Folk Festival. How does that affect your song selection?

It’s great because we are able to mix it up.  We might not repeat any songs the whole weekend; it depends on how we’re feeling. It gives us a chance to stretch out. A lot of times you’ll go to a city, and you’ll play two 45-minute sets, and that’s it.

We have so many songs, it’s good to dust them off and share them. The most painful thing is when people come up to us after the show and say, “I was hoping you we’re going to do this song.” We could have done it. That’s why we ask for requests. We don’t want someone to come all the way to see us and then leave with their favorite song unplayed.

But we’re in charge of the show, we don’t always defer to what people want to hear. Sometimes people don’t know what they want to hear, and we play what we’d like to do. And that’s another great thing about our band: We are in no way whatsoever commercially indentured to anyone — financially, artistically, nothing. There’s something very liberating and pure about a folk festival where commerce is not the driving force. And you really do see a different kind of show, and the older I get, the more I’m involved in this line of work, the more beautiful and moving that is to me. That’s one feature of our band that all of us are happy about. It gives you a lot of freedom. It’s all about the feeling and the spirit.

If people don’t know your band, don’t know Western swing, what is your pitch to get them to come to your show?

If you’re a musician, especially for a young musician, it can be a very virtuosic and inspiring style. It’s not a laid-back way of playing. It’s not people playing whole notes and gently accompanying a vocal. It’s not a singer/songwriter type of a genre. It’s a much more electrifying, dynamic show. And it’s swing.

It’s a musicians band. The way we started out was playing music, we didn’t start out as singers or songwriters, and it was the instruments that brought us together. If you are a player or if you like fiery, more exciting, maybe jazzier virtuosic playing, you might want to stop by.

And it’s a style of music that’s so uniquely American. We consider ourselves like a world music band. In many ways, we consider ourselves an American equivalent of a traditional style of music that is unique to this culture. And it’s not really getting played all that much. There’s a huge wealth of material, everything from old cowboy tunes to crazy Gypsy instrumentals to standards by Cole Porter and George Gershwin, but all played in the hot jazz trio format.

Do you think Western swing reflects the idea of the United States as a melting pot of cultures?

Bob Wills is the singular person whose name is most associated with Western swing, and the guys in his band, they were listening to what was going on in Paris at the time, they were listening to Stéphane Grappelli, urban jazz players, and there was a lot of interplay. The traditions did mix. You might hear someone playing an American fiddle tune and taking a solo on the violin that sounds like Louis Armstrong. People forget that this blending of country and jazz has always been around. It’s only more recently that they’ve been divided because of finance and industry and weird ideas from the music industry. They really used to be a hand-in-glove combination. It’s very much a melting pot kind of music.

I compare it to Hinduism — maybe that’s lost on other people because I was a religion major. It doesn’t matter what it is, Hinduism makes room for it. It pulls everything in. It doesn’t matter if it’s Jesus, or the Buddha or the Pope, there’s room for everybody and it all fits together fine. On some level, I think of Western swing like that too. And I think that is very American.


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