In order to appreciate the current game plan of Hot Club of Cowtown, you have to review some previous box scores.
First, there was the dispersal. After seven years, five albums and who-knows-how-many performances, the Austin, Tx. trio, designed as a nexus between the ‘30s and ‘40s Western swing adventures of Bob Wills and the pre-World War II “hot jazz” pioneered in Europe by guitarist Django Reinhardt and violinist Stephane Grappelli in the Quintette du Hot Club de France, disbanded.
But when Cowtown fiddler Elana James later hit the road to support a self-titled debut album, she thought of no finer guitar foil for her band that longtime Cowtown mate Whit Smith. When James’ bassist then relocated to Chicago, she signed up stringman Jake Erwin, who just happened to be the bass player on Hot Club’s final two albums.
Then the realization hit. The very band James had on the road was the very Cowtown lineup that busted up in the first place.
“We had been playing together, the three of us, under my name for nearly a year,” James said. “After awhile, it was like, ‘We should call ourselves what we really are.”
Thus began what she terms “the re-launching” of Hot Club of Cowtown, which James and Smith first formed in 1997.
“It’s a rare thing for the three of us to have musically developed when and where and how we did,” Smith said. “Somewhere in all of that there was just a connection. We were coming from more of the same place than just the fact we have a lot of the same records.”
While relentless touring in the wake of 2002’s Ghost Train album yielded a high spirited concert recording (2003’s Continental Stomp), it also saw friction in the band ranks. But the resulting split came without any lasting animosity.
“We got to the bottom of everybody’s character and saw that we still liked each other,” James said.
The reconvened Hot Club of Cowtown returns to Lexington tonight to serve as the final band to play The Dame. The trio will stay over to perform for the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour on Monday.
Then on August 19, the Shout Factory label will release a 20-song anthology assembled from the band’s five Hightone albums. Aptly titled The Best of the Hot Club of Cowtown, the album is a mix of originals (Smith’s Emily, James’ Secret of Mine), standards (Stardust), swing favorites (the Wills staple Ida Red) and global string summits (Fuli Tschai). There is also a Ghost Town cover of the ‘70s-era Aerosmith obscurity Chip Away the Stone that wraps three part harmonies around Smith’s guitar/vocal lead.
“I always think you should be allowed play the music you like,” Smith said. “We’re very lucky in that we get to do that. Some people get so tired of the material they’re forced to play. I mean, could you imagine writing Margaritaville and then having to play it every night?”
A new studio album for 2009 is also in the works. While it will feature predominantly original music, the Cowtown crew has already recorded another intriguing cover: Tom Waits’ Orphans nugget Long Way Home.
“The thing that’s cool is we don’t really sound like anybody,” James said. “We don’t sound like Stephane Grappelli. We don’t sound like Bob Wills. We’ve been inspired by that stuff, but we’re not aping it at all. This is a band with a sound of its own
“Whether we’re playing an Aerosmith song or a ballad by the Hot Club of France, to have consistent character throughout the music is something I’m very proud of.”
(above, The Hot Club of Cowtown: bassist/vocalist Jake Erwin, fiddler/vocalist Elana James, guitarist/vocalist Whit Smith)
The Hot Club of Cowtown performs at 8 tonight with The Swells for the last night of downtown business at The Dame, 156 West Main. $7. (859) 226-9005.
Hot Club also plays at 7 p.m. Monday with Takeharu Kunimoto and the Last Frontier for the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour at the Kentucky Theatre, 214 E. Main St. $10. (859) 252-8888.