Hot Club Of Cowtown: A Texas Trio's Tribute The band formed in 1997 and quickly gained attention in its adopted hometown of Austin, Texas. On a new album, its members honor their idol Bob Wills, "The King of Western Swing."
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Hot Club Of Cowtown: A Texas Trio's Tribute

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Hot Club Of Cowtown: A Texas Trio's Tribute

Hot Club Of Cowtown: A Texas Trio's Tribute

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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.

JAKE ERWIN: 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.

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...


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

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


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."


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.

ELANA JAMES: 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.


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.


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.


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.

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.

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.


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.

WHIT SMITH: 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.

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.

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

JAMES: Thank you.

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

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

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

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.

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.

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

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

WILLS AND THE TEXAS PLAYBOYS: 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...


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.

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


BURNETT: John Burnett, NPR News, Austin.


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

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

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