When Hot Club of Cowtown coalesced as a trio in 1996, fiddler/vocalist Elana James and guitarist/vocalist/avid 78 collector Whit Smith had already worked together in two other big Swing bands doing ’20s/’30s Hot Jazz, Western Swing and Tin Pan Alley classics. With the leaner, stripped back structure of HCOC, James and Smith continued to rely on obscure covers for their debut album, 1998’s Swingin’ Stampede, but for the following year’s Tall Tales, the trio (rounded out by bassist Billy Horton) began sprinkling authentic-sounding originals into the mix, songs that sounded so true to the period it was hard to tell the vintage songs from the contemporary ones without checking the writing credits.
HCOC motored along in that same vein for six years and as many albums before calling it a day in 2005. Smith played solo dates and started a new unit, Whit Smith’s Hot Jazz Caravan, while James toured and recorded as Elana James & Her Hot Hot Trio, then Elana James & the Continental Two, and also made time to become the first full-time touring female instrumentalist for Bob Dylan in three decades.
Smith and James started playing again in 2006 and appeared together sporadically until the official reformation of HCOC (with new bassist/vocalist Jake Erwin) in 2008 to support the release of The Best of the Hot Club of Cowtown. Last year, the trio released Wishful Thinking, their first full album of new recordings since 2003’s Continental Stomp. While the HCOC formula was on full display on Wishful Thinking, the trio didn’t hesitate to experiment and update within that context; their covers included Hoagy Carmichael’s “Georgia,” Tom Waits’ “The Long Way Home” and James’ dark spin on Irving Berlin’s “Someone to Watch Over Me.”
Hot Club of Cowtown established their broad range a decade and a half ago, and that diversity is reflected in the composition of their audience, which you would be well advised to be among come showtime.
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