(Above: Hot Club of Cowtown get lowdown at the Americana Music Association Festival in 2009.)
By Joel Francis
The Daily Record
When Elana James was growing up in Kansas City, you could usually find her in Westport on the weekends. After checking out the bookstore, window shopping for clothes or catching a movie she’d take out her violin and busk.
What James played, though, wasn’t the classical music she’d been trained. James’ bow bounced to old timey fiddle music meant for dancing. And it tormented her.
“I thought it was the road to ruin,” James (nee Fremerman) said. “It wasn’t until I graduated from college I realized I wanted to play a more immediate, social music and, especially, dance music. It was such an undeniable pull by then I didn’t feel bad about leaving classical music, but I was at war with myself for a long time over it.”
James may have gotten over her classical guilt, but she had a harder time getting over the demise of her band, the Hot Club of Cowtown. In the past decade, the band broke through and found success, only to crumble at its peak. After a few years apart, the trio reformed to try it all over again.
The Western swing trio opened the decade with two albums under their belt and were building a steady following with their dynamic live shows. In 2004 they caught a deserved break when Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson invited them to offer their joint tour of minor league ball parks.
“We were in England on tour when our manager told us of the offer,” James said, recalling the fateful day. “It was totally incredible – it was one of the happiest, most exciting things I had experience in my life at that point. There were no expectations for the tour. We just thought we’d play our 23 and a half minute slot and that’s it. It turned out the tour was incredibly fun, musically gratifying experience.”
What should have been a tipping point turned to disappointment when Hot Club guitarist Whit Smith decided to pursue other projects. Fortunately another guitarist, Bob Dylan, offered James a spot in his band.
“It’s not something I like to talk about,” James said. “He (Dylan) loved my playing and was a huge advocate of me musically and personally. He gave me a lot of confidence and it was an honor to have that reception from him.
“The highest compliment you can get is to be asked to play with somebody else,” James continued.”I got a lot out of my friendship with him and his enthusiasm for the things I was doing.”
After double-duty time with Dylan – James also served as opening act on the tour – James formed the Continental Two and released a solo album. She couldn’t stay away from her Cowtown bandmates, though. Smith frequently sat in with James. Before long, bass player Jake Erwin was back in the fold as well.
“The band is the best at what we do,” James said. “Nobody sounds like us or does what we do as well. That’s why we got back together.”
But a lot changed over the band’s four year hiatus. Print outlets that used to champion the band, like “No Depression” were no longer around. And the decay of the major labels meant the standard system of filters were no longer in place.
“It’s been difficult after stopping to regain that momentum. We’ve had to come back and reintroduce ourselves. The media opportuines – so disorganized and spread out,” James said. “We are swimming in a difficult sea.”
Between the release of a greatest hits compilation in 2008 and a new album in 2009, the threesome spent the year touring the world, reintroducing themselves to fans.
“We weren’t expecting it, but people found out about us and things have been going great guns,” James said. “We’re actually having more work than we can accommodate. We have to be choosy.”
While there won’t be a new Cowtown album this year, James said the band will “probably start heading in that direction.” In the meantime, they just want to enjoy their accomplishments.
“This is our fun year,” James said. “There’s no major agenda. Last year was hard work, making the record, then putting it out on three continents and touring to support it.”
Although James didn’t know it at the time, the country music she plays today is just as much a part of her upbringing as the classical instruction she started receiving at age 5.
“Coming from Kansas,” James said, “even though I didn’t grow up listening to fiddle tunes and old dudes sitting on the porch and drinking moonshine, when you pull back I can see how that culture just seeped into me. I wouldn’t be who I am today without my time in Kansas City.”