Meet Elana and the cream of Cowtown

By Clive Sinclair, October 28, 2010
Elena James, who with Jake Erwin (left) and Whit Smith, plays a mix of continental jazz and western swing

Elena James, who with Jake Erwin (left) and Whit Smith, plays a mix of continental jazz and western swing

Like every story you ever heard, this one begins with a dame. In Closing Time Leonard Cohen says of a reveller: "She's 100 but she's wearing something tight." Well, Elana Fremerman ain't one hundred, not by a long shot, and she's wearing something tight. Her dress is redder than the devil's toenails, which is fitting since she is playing his music on her fiddle.

Alongside her are Whit Smith, on guitar, and Jake Erwin, on upright bass, known collectively on fly posters as the Hot Club of Cowtown. So potent is their mix of continental jazz and western swing that dry bones have been known to shake off the dust of ages and jitterbug like there's no tomorrow.

I owe my discovery of the Hot Club of Cowtown to Kinky Friedman, leader of the Texas Jewboys. When I saw that Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys were headlining the 2003 Santa Clarita Cowboy Poetry and Music Festival I thought it my duty to check out the band that had inspired the Texas Jewboys.

It turned out that Bob Wills was a bit like the Dalai Lama in that the original Bob Wills had long since been called to the Grand Ole Opry in the sky, and another Bob Wills found to impersonate him. His band were still good, of course, but not half as alive as the B-feature band, the aforementioned Hot Club of Cowtown.

Now Elana, Whit and Jake are in Britain to play a few venues, and promote their new CD, What Makes Bob Holler, a tribute to the band they once supported. Under questioning Elana says it was a privilege to be on the same bill as the Texas Playboys.

Her dress is redder than the Devil's toenails

She speaks of being close to the origins of western swing, "of being in the presence of men who know how to get down and play their asses off". She sums up their essential quality in a single word: "authenticity".

She feels the same about the melameds who taught her at the Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy in Kansas City, Kansas. The school was catholic in that it catered to all sorts of Jews, from Lubavitchers to liberals, like the Fremerman family.

Marvin, Elana's father, was an ad-man, running his own local agency, while Susan, Elana's ma, played violin with the Kansas City Philharmonic. So she hung out with Jews and musicians from an early age. She is sort of freewheeling now on both scores, but the foundations remain.

Elana entered Barnard College, New York, to study comparative religion. After graduation her eastward trajectory continued, and she progressed to India, where she studied a form of music called dhrupad.

Back in America, Elana went west big time and worked as a horse wrangler on a dude ranch in Colorado, offering city slickers the chance to be John Wayne. Maybe it was the simple poetry of cowboy talk, or maybe it was the camaraderie of the campfire, but something urged Elena to pick up her fiddle again, dormant since she decided that an orchestrated life was not for her.

An ad in New York's Village Voice for an accompanist attracted a lot of weirdos, but one of them happened to be a nimble guitarist, the one and only Whit Smith. It was Whit who introduced Elena to what she calls the "driving locomotive rhythm of western swing".

So Elana and Whit became a duo, playing for tips in parks and street corners. They made their first recording as the Hot Club of Cowtown in 1998. In 2000 Jake Erwin, Oklahoma bred, and as upright as his bass, became the band's third permanent member. They have hardly stopped touring since. Somewhere during the course of these journeyings Elana Fremerman became Elana James. If you ask me the name change has Bob Dylan's fingerprints all over it. When touring with Dylan (ne Zimmerman) it was customary to check into hotels under false names, thus Elena Fremerman became Violet James. Dylan urged her to go the whole hog and become Violet St James, but Elena preferred to hang on to half of her Kansas City self.

Heinrich Heine once imagined the exiled Israelite as a dog who regains his stolen manhood only when he embraces the sabbath bride. I see western swing performing a similar function in hardscrabble Texas, turning dirt-poor hired hands into Dapper Dans with magic feet at the Saturday night hoe-down. The cantor sang "Lecha dodi, likrath kallah - come, beloved, thy bride already awaits thee, unveiling for thee her bashful face", and Bob Wills sang, "I married the Rose of San Antone", but the result was the same, a casting aside of quotidian cares and a night of boundless joy. Elana James ain't the sabbath bride exactly, but she sure does make a joyful sound.

The Hot Club of Cowtown play the Dixie Queen Paddle Steamer on the Thames on Sunday October 31. What Makes Bob Holler is out on Proper Records.

Last updated: 11:17am, October 29 2010