Hot Club Of Cowtown: Unrepentantly Retro Hot Swing

Austin, Texas, trio adamant about adhering to their idols.

Elana Fremerman, violinist in the Hot Club of Cowtown, rarely listens to any music recorded within the last five decades. But the trio's been doing some recording of their own, and are currently touring behind their second HighTone disc, Tall Tales.

Large audiences — including crowds at the recent Chicago Country Music Fest and the upcoming Cambridge Folk Festival in the UK — are getting a taste of the Hot Club's wacky take on western swing, courtesy of such cuts as "I Can't Tame Wild Women (But I Can Make Tame Women Wild)."

"We love to see people get up and dance to our music," Fremerman, said from the band's base in Austin prior to embarking on the current tour.

The Hot Club are billed as a swing band, but Fremerman points out that "I think we're on the fringes of what's known as swing right now. We're a more orthodox — even antique — rendition of swing music."

They draw from Bob Wills–style western swing, including "I Laugh When I Think How I Cried Over You" and Tin Pan Alley standards such as "There'll Be Some Changes Made" and "Polka Dots and Moonbeams."

"There's a kind of fiery desperation about the playing in that music," she says of her taste for pre-war material.

Rounding out the trio are Whit Smith on guitar and Matt Weiner on bass. Both Fremerman and Smith sing, and they do a lot of instrumental tunes as well, including "Draggin' the Bow," Tall Tales' opener, and the closer, "Sally Goodin."

Paris And The Prairie

Smith and Fremerman — who first hooked up as members of the 11-piece Western Caravan swing band in New York City — both have a deep affinity for jazz, bluegrass and country, as well as swing.

Early hot jazz proponents Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli, who were at the center of the original Hot Club in pre–World War II Paris, are major influences, and the band's name is an indirect tribute to them.

But where's Cowtown? It's neither Austin, Texas, the

band's current headquarters, nor San Diego, where they were living when they came up with the name.

"There are several jazz bands that are the hot club of this or that town," Fremerman says, "but Whit and I were looking for a name that would have to do with our western swing playing. So we came up with Cowtown."

Pre-War Purists

Another reason for the band's distinct sound is that Smith "is a total purist," Fremerman says. "We agreed that we didn't want to incorporate that or combine this — that the most fantastic style was to be absolutely true to tradition and innovate within that. When you improvise within a style there are such limitless possibilities, but you're keeping it as pure as possible."

Still, the band's renditions of familiar classics such as "Bonaparte's Retreat" brim with contemporary fire and energy. But they're not afraid to step out with some songs all their own, either.

From Tall Tales, for instance, Fremerman's "Darling You and I Are Through," offers twin fiddle work and '40s-style ballad sensibility, while Smith's "Emily" is a bouncy tune with a catchy retro-style hook.

"We wanted those songs to blend with the music we play, as though we were contemporaries with the writers from the 1930s and 1940s," Smith says. "We didn't want to add any outside influences or to come off as being campy. We wanted to be true to the music and to ourselves."

Fremerman's first training was as a classical violinist, but it was western swing that led her into a musical career.

"I was at a classical music camp one summer in New York State," she recalls, "and my teacher and her husband had some of us over after class. They started playing these western swing tunes. That was the first time I'd ever heard it and I didn't know what it was, but I remember clearly going back to my cabin writing down on the calendar that this was the day I decided to make a career in music."

Classical music courses followed, with Fremerman doing well but being frustrated by the strictures of classical performance.

"You couldn't just sit down with somebody and play," she says. She followed up her music studies with a trip to India and some time in Colorado, which opened up new dimensions for her and led to the improvisational challenges she relishes now. "When you can take out your instrument and play for people, it's like participating in a culture through the direct artery of music," she says.

"That's the single most incredible thing I've been able to do over the course of my life. That's what music's all about."