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SCOTT SIMON, host:

There are many major cities in the United States and you might find a Hot Club playing gypsy jazz in the Django Reinhardt tradition. There are Hot Clubs of San Francisco, Philadelphia and Detroit, among others. There's also the Hot Club of Cowtown, a trio in Austin, Texas that specializes in western swing. Players have been musical ambassadors for the U.S. State Department. They've played Lincoln Center. They've been inducted into the Texas Western Swing Hall of Fame.

And as NPR's John Burnett reports, the Hot Club of Cowtown has just released a new CD that honors the King of Western Swing, Bob Wills.

JOHN BURNETT: The three members of the Hot Club of Cowtown are sitting at a table, sharing a pint of Irish whisky, on what for them is sacred ground -Cain's Ballroom in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Mr. JAKE ERWIN (Bassist, Hot Club of Cowtown): Cain's Academy of Dancing had loads of dances and the Wills band would play here, like, every weekend for years.

BURNETT: That's bassist Jake Erwin himself a Tulsa native. Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys made this rambling old cavern of a dancehall their home base from 1935 on.

Mr. ERWIN: They would go out on road during the week but they would always come back here. It's pretty special place. So, there's definitely ghosts here in a good way. When you clap your hands in here...

(Soundbite of hands clapping)

Mr. ERWIN: ...that echo goes right back to 1937.

Unidentified Man: And now from Cain's, 423 North Main in Tulsa, Oklahoma, KVOO presents the music of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys.

(Soundbite of music)

BOB WILLS AND THE TEXAS PLAYBOYS: (Singing) Hey everybody from near and far, if you want to know who we are, we're the Texas Playboys KVOO...

BURNETT: The Hot Club played its own show here in February, the band's first U.S. date after the release of its tribute CD to Bob Wills called "What Makes Bob Holler."

(Soundbite of song, "The Devil Ain't Lazy")

HOT CLUB OF COWTOWN: (Singing) If you think you're strong and brave, smile not then not behave, then you have one foot in the grave. There's only 24 hours a day.

BURNETT: The Hot Club of Cowtown is Jake Erwin, guitarist Whit Smith and fiddler Elana James.

Ms. ELANA JAMES (Fiddler, Hot Club of Cowtown): We're so happy to be back at Cain's, it's so exciting to have all of you here, and now that we know this is where it all began...

BURNETT: The trio began in 1997. Elana James is the daughter of a classical violinist and an ad man from Kansas City. She studied comparative religion at Barnard College, worked at the Buddhist magazine Tricycle in New York, but found herself seduced away from the writer's life by the fiddle.

(Soundbite of fiddle)

BURNETT: To watch James perform, her blonde hair flying, elbow pumping, and eyes locked on the fingerboard is to know she chose the right career path.

(Soundbite of fiddle)

BURNETT: Whit Smith was a rocker when he discovered western swing working at Tower Records in New York City. His 1946 Gibson arch-top guitar played through a '37 Gibson amp gives him a distinctly early jazz sound.

(Soundbite of guitar)

BURNETT: After jamming together in the East Village for a couple of years, Smith and James moved to Austin in 1997, where they met Jake Erwin.

Mr. ERWIN: There's a lot that you can do with three pieces. It's just enough to kind of make it really sound big and really sound full.

BURNETT: In a town that's particular about its live music, the Hot Club quickly rose to the top.

Mr. ERWIN: People often say to us, wow, it sounds like there's five or six people up there, and there's only three of you. How do you guys do that?

BURNETT: They do it with the guitar playing lots of substitute chords to create movement in the rhythm section, the fiddle playing rhythm when not soloing and a percussive, slap-bass style that evokes rockabilly, right down to Erwin's slicked-back pompadour.

(Soundbite of music)

BURNETT: Even though the band was riding high, the stress of non-stop touring caused it to break up in 2004. Elana James joined Bob Dylan's band for a spell, and cut an album under her own name. Erwin and Smith went off to play with other outfits. As Whit Smith says, the breakup taught them that hot players are interchangeable, but the right chemistry is indeed rare.

Mr. WHIT SMITH (Guitarist, Hot Club of Cowtown): I'd be up there on the stage with, you know, first-rate people, but, you know, you just felt like you were pulling a wagon through the mud. And this band, you get onstage and you got to hang on for dear life 'cause the other two can leave you behind.

Ms. JAMES: For my birthday in 2008, I asked for my birthday if we could have the Hot Club of Cowtown back, and they said okay.

BURNETT: The trio has been setting stages afire since they got back together, making new fans with every live performance. After the show at Cain's, father and son Steve and Robert Horner came up to meet Elana James.

Ms. STEVE HORNER: You guys topped any performance I've ever seen. It's better tonight than it's ever been, honest to God.

Ms. JAMES: Thank you.

Mr. S. HORNER: My dad here is 86, be 87 in June, named Robert Horner.

Mr. ROBERT HORNER: That's Carnegie Hall stuff, girl. You're good.

Mr. S. HORNER: And he's been coming here since Bob Wills played originally. And he said Texas Playboys couldn't stay up with you guys.

Ms. JAMES: Well, I don't know about that.

BURNETT: Robert Horner, a retired highway department foreman, remembered coming to Cain's Ballroom as a teenager 73 years ago.

Mr. R. HORNER: You could come up here everyday at noon and this thing would be full. No dancing hardly went on; it was just a radio broadcast.

Mr. S. HORNER: You used to just walk in here and listen to them play, didn't you?

Mr. R. HORNER: Oh yeah.

Unidentified Man: Right now to get things rolling, here's Bob Wills himself.

Mr. BOB WILLS: Okay, Brother Luke, thank you. And here comes an instrumental we've got a lot of requests for tonight. We have a large crowd down here, friends, enjoying it. Having a long fun. Fiddle on, Silver Moon. Charlie, one, two, three...

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. JAMES: You cannot play this kind of music and be, like, dour or sort of, kind of, like, self-absorbed or passive or something.

BURNETT: Elana James.

Ms. JAMES: It truly is like this music comes through you and plays itself through you.

(Soundbite of music)

BURNETT: Hot Club of Cowtown is currently on tour, playing their revival of western swing and early jazz. And somewhere Bob is hollering.

John Burnett, NPR News, Austin.

(Soundbite of song, Big Ball in Cowtown)

HOT CLUB OF COWTOWN: (Singing) Working on the railroad, sleeping on the ground...

SIMON: And you can hear songs from the Hot Club of Cowtown at NPRMusic.org.

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Let's hear a little more of Bob Wills. I'm Scott Simon.

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