Quick Q and A with Elana James (Hot Club of Cowtown)

Hot Club of Cowtown is sizzling hot.  All three members of the band (Elana James on fiddle, Whit Smith on guitar, and Jake Ervin on stand-up bass) play their respective instruments impeccably and with a passion that is undeniable.  Their gypsy jazz infused music is infectious.  It’s nearly impossible to sit still in your seat when listening to them.  Their new CD Rendezvous with Rhythm harkens back to their roots and more than exemplifies their dedication to the musical brilliance of the masters—Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli.

To learn more about Elana and her bandmates, visit the Hot Club of Cowtown website.


(left to right: Jake Erwin, Elana James, Whitt Smith)

Your new CD Rendezvous with Rhythm is a major nod to the masters of gypsy jazz, Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli.  Did each of the Hotclub band members come to know this music early on in their music careers?

Well, I have always had an affinity for that kind of music–like from watching Woody Allen movies growing up (in Kansas), the movie Blue Velvet. It never occurred to me until much later that I had always been drawn to this style but didn’t even know what it was or who played it or where it came from. I got more into it when I met Whit in NYC in 1994–fortunately he has very good taste and he helped point me in the right direction. I could just as easily have ended up playing hip hop covers at Sea World with a headset in the killer whale show. This is a better fit for me. Whit, for his part, started out as a rock’n’roller on Cape Cod but got into Django/Stephane through country music–I think some of the guitar players he discovered that way, like Eldon Shamblin, George Barnes and Freddie Green and Thumbs Carlisle–had a style that led him back toward early hot jazz.

Lloyd Maines produced this CD for you.  What was it like working on this project with him?  Did he bring some new elements to the discussion table and help you find the sound that you wanted?

Lloyd is like a Buddha. He is calm, has excellent musical ideas, and just to have him there while we are recording is very reassuring. It’s like having an adult present at a kids party. In case things go wrong there’s someone in charge. He’s a really cool person, and, musically speaking, is very good at tweaking small things to bring out drama in a song or in little suggestions that make things sparkle more. He has helped us with lots of arrangements over the years and still whenever we play them I always think of him, of where they came from.

Was there one song on this collection that was the “anchor song” that you knew right away would be a crowd favorite?

I do love “Dark Eyes,” which is the first track on the new album Rendezvous in Rhythm. It has a slow build and unfurls into a frenzy.

Hot Club of Cowtown is a multi-faceted band: you seem to attract a variety of different kinds of music fans (which is a very cool thing).  You get the jazz aficionados, country devotees, and intrigued folkies!  All these people love good music and know that they’ll get it when they listen to you and get to experience you live. With such a diverse fan base, do you find yourselves playing at an extreme range of types of venues?

Over the years we have played a pretty crazy combination of places, for sure. We’ve been fortunate to play a few tours for the US State Department which has been one of the greatest thrills in our band’s career so far. We’ve played a rodeo in Hawaii. We recently played for the mayor of Salalah at a cultural festival in the Sultanate of Oman. We were the first American band ever to tour in Azerbaijan, we’ve played several times on the Grand Ol’ Opry in Nashville as well as on NPR’s All Things Considered and Morning Edition. We’ve played biker bars, remote villages in Armenia and the Republic of Georgia and at Jazz at Lincoln Center. We’ve toured with Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson and once, when we were just getting going, we played a show for one person in Kentucky. Just last year we played a week-long residency at a fancy casino in central London, we played the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, NV, did a three-week tour of the UK that wrapped up in a little ancient church in the far north of Scotland, the Montana Folk Festival in Butte, Montana, a Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli gypsy jazz festival at a big folk venue in Berkeley, CA….Last weekend we played a dance event at BYU in Provo, UT where this huge troupe of undergraduate dancers leaped and twirled to choreographed versions of three of our songs and it was awesome. The list goes on and on. That’s about normal for us! 🙂

Do you have any musical aspirations that haven’t happened yet and that you’d like to float out there into the universe in hope of making them come true?

We are looking forward to being an overnight success.

Hot Club of Cowtown will be appearing at the me&thee in Marblehead, MA on Friday, April 12.

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