Americana music has experienced a major revival in recent years, with groups like Mumford & Sons and the Avett Brothers topping the charts with their music based in traditional American genres. Hot Club of Cowtown, the Austin-based trio of Elana James, Whit Smith and Jake Erwin, are no bandwagoners, having played their hybrid of western swing and hot jazz firmly rooted in the American tradition since the 1990s. Yet, as the rest of the music world now turns its eyes to Americana, the group has decided to explore their other biggest influence, the Gypsy jazz of 1930s Paris, on their current U.S. tour and upcoming album.
At the center of Hot Club of Cowtown, who bring their unique mix of American and European influences to Jammin’ Java on Tuesday, is Miss James, the group’s lead vocalist and fiddler. A classically trained violinist, Miss James joined up with Mr. Smith, guitarist, in response to an ad placed in the Village Voice, and added Mr. Erwin, a bassist, a few years later to form the group. Miss James has continued to gig, including spending a few years on tour with Bob Dylan. She was the first female instrumentalist in his band in three decades, and later served as Mr. Dylan’s opening act on his 2006 tour.
Though the group is best known for playing traditional Americana music, its interest in Gypsy jazz is not new. “It’s always something we’ve liked to do,” said Miss James. “Often people at our shows, old-timers from West Texas, will come up and tell us that what they really like is those old-time Gypsy songs. This was the antidote to our western swing CD. Our band is better known as a western swing act, and even though western swing included all kinds of jazzy bluesy idioms from back in the day, the western and country part of it are so prominent that it tends to overshadow the purely jazzy European side of the style.”
While Hot Club of Cowtown have been heavily influenced by the music of distant cultures, they have returned the favor by helping to spread their unique blend of American and European music. The group has served as cultural ambassadors for the U.S. Department of State, and it was the first American band to play in Azerbaijan during a tour of the Caucasus.
“It’s an American culture act going into the nooks and crannies of the culture and connecting with people on a village level,” explained Miss James. “They took us to extremely remote parts of the country where there was no electricity and we’d play in a barn or an orphanage.”
The fact that Hot Club of Cowtown’s music is so deeply American has not limited the group’s ability to connect with audiences of very different musical traditions. “So many cultures haven’t yet lost their community sense of spending time together and dancing traditional dances, and one of the most moving and beautiful things is a place like that where the kids jump up and dance their traditional dances to fiddle tunes,” recalled Miss James.
In the 15 years since Hot Club of Cowtown debuted its first album “Swingin’ Stampede,” the trio has continued to build their fan base through a grueling touring schedule that will see it play 50 shows stateside in 2013 before touring the United Kingdom. The band’s touring has brought it to the Washington area several times, including for performances on the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage and at the National World War II Memorial’s dedication.
This schedule has helped the band continue to thrive in the modern music marketplace, despite the challenges facing recording artists. “With touring, a lot of your revenue comes from live CD sales at your shows,” Miss James explained. “For us, our audience tends to be older, people who are accustomed to buying CDs and probably understand how important that is to artists.”
Miss James promises that the group’s Vienna show will be a combination of the Gypsy jazz songs of the new record and some of the group’s more western swing rooted material. No matter what influence it is exploring in a given song, the trio’s talents as a live act have helped it build a cadre of devoted fans.
“I do think that anyone can hang out in a studio and make something spectacular, the proof is in the pudding,” said Miss James. “To truly be a musician or artist or band, you have to haul your butt out there into the three dimensional realm and throw down life to people who are there to be transported. We do an ancient craft, we ride around and perform live in front of people. That might not be around a hundred years from now, but that’s what being in a band is to me. If you can’t take the show on the road, I kind of wonder what the show is.”
WHAT: The Hot Club of Cowtown
WHERE: Jammin’ Java, 227 Maple Ave. E, Vienna
WHEN: Tuesday, April 9 at 8 p.m.